Andrew Hamm: the Bipolar Express

Ruminations on theatre, music, and just about anything else that crosses my bipolar brain.

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Richmond Times-Dispatch: "Director gives 'Doctor Faustus' energy"

Director gives 'Doctor Faustus' energy

Richmond Times-Dispatch
Feb 3, 2007
By Susan Haubenstock

"Whimsical" is probably the adjective least used to describe Christopher Marlowe's "Doctor Faustus."

Based on accounts of a 16th-century astrologer who sold his soul to the devil, the play is an Elizabethan tragedy written by the originator of that form, very dark, with much musing on the tortures of hell.

But in the adaptation by the Atlanta Shakespeare Company's Jeff Watkins, and filtered through the sensibility of Richmond Shakespeare Theatre, it's a pared-down, souped-up showcase for two actors, a small menagerie of stuffed animals and some sock puppets. There's also a portable commode, Christmas lights and a nod to the movie "Groundhog Day."

The production, part of the Richmond area's Acts of Faith Festival, shows the influence of master of play Andrew Hamm, who has a strong flair for physicality. Under his direction, the two actors, Graham Birce and David White, fling themselves and each other around the parquet stage with great energy.

Birce, in particular, manages to twist his body into a virtual corkscrew to play Mephistopheles, the demon who both recruits and serves Faustus on behalf of Lucifer. Birce is an electric performer, loaded with energy and capable of enacting dozens of characters, each with a unique voice and physical presence.

For all its wackiness, the serious aspects of "Doctor Faustus" are still in place, though the adaptation cuts much of the text. The iambic pentameter is spoken carefully and well under the coaching of master of verse Julie Phillips.

The dilemma of a man choosing earthly pleasures in exchange for eternal torture is hard to beat when it comes to drama. And Faustus has second thoughts about his infernal bargain, and third and fourth ones, so the conflict is always simmering.

Hamm and Phillips include a note in the program referring to the hubris of young teenagers, that moment when they are sure they know everything and their parents are dolts.

White's Faustus is just that kind of smart aleck, though he's supposed to be a learned man who's studied law, medicine, religion and logic.

He's decided to reject them all in favor of magic, and so he conjures up Mephistopheles, who becomes his seducer, his slave and his torturer.

Only in the final scenes does White get to act like an adult, and by then he's consumed by fear and regret -- and yet unwilling to repent.


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