Heinrich Faust, the professor who starred in Goethe's 19th-century drama Faust: The Tragedy, is a difficult character to portray. He's a Renaissance man who can expound for hours on medicine or theology, and declaim long passages from Grecian tragedy. He speaks in verse, using florid metaphors to describe his dissatisfaction with the world. He tires of academics and switches to magic, saying he can climb moonbeams and seduce nature. He lacks a solid moral compass but still has plenty of insecurities. Thus, he easily gets seduced by the idea of being useful to someone — namely, the devil.
It's no surprise that Faust would fascinate a director like Mark Jackson, who seems to enjoy working with characters whose ambitions get the better of them. (His recent credits include Shotgun Players' Macbeth and a wonderful staging of Miss Julie, which he directed for Aurora Theatre.) In his latest Shotgun Players production, Jackson re-envisions part one of Goethe's two-part tale. That's the part where Faust sells his soul to the devil in exchange for fulfillment of his every desire. What Faust desires, it turns out, is a young peasant girl named Gretchen.
Condensed from a nine-hundred-page script, Jackson's adaptation — co-directed by Kevin Clarke, who also designed the costumes — presents the story as a series of seductions: The devil Mephistopheles seduces Faust, Faust seduces Gretchen, and, in her own coy way, Gretchen seduces back. The violence of these interactions, coupled with Jackson's theatrical shock tactics, make this Faust more of a Gothic romance than a morality play. Distinct from its source material, the Shotgun Players production nonetheless preserves a lot of the language from the original text. Yet it's a decidedly Jackson-esque rendering, as much about power and desire as about choosing between good and evil.
Jackson stars at Faust, and plays the character as an overly erudite geek who appears to suffer from some form of ADHD. Physically, he's good for the part. Jackson has a prominent Adam's apple and veins that all but pop out of his hands while he talks. He's tall and lanky, stiff during monologues but able to flit about the stage with Jim Carrey-like elasticity. In the opening scene he stands before a wall made of doors (either a portal to the eternal world or to his own mind) and delivers a long, flowery, extremely poetic speech about his discontentment. He despairs of other men with their intellectual pretensions and their "tinseled phrases." He claims to be bored with academia. He contemplates suicide. It's disorienting even if you're familiar with the play, partly because of the baroque language, and partly because Faust's thought process is so complicated. He's essentially giving us the whole back story of who he is and how he came to be, but in a stream-of-consciousness form rather than as a straight-on narrative. You might start wondering where all this is going.
Enter Mephistopheles (Peter Ruocco), the beguiling devil. In a scene that's every bit as tender as Faust's later flirtations with Gretchen (Blythe Foster), the two of them make a pact that would require each to be the other's servant — the devil will help Faust on earth and Faust, in turn, will be the devil's right-hand man in hell. Thus begins a strange kind of 19th-century bromance. (Jackson underscores the male-bonding theme by playing "This Magic Moment" in the background, right after they sign a contract in blood.) We're led out of Faust's interior world and into a dark forest, where beautiful Gretchen lives with her tetchy, wheelchair-bound mother.
Trained at the Gardzienice Theatre in Poland and at Columbia University in New York, Foster has a ballerina's stature and a sweet, purring voice. Her Gretchen seems to gel emotionally with Faust, even if they're a bad match aesthetically. Gretchen charms Faust with her quaint German folk songs (exhumed from the original play). He dazzles her first with jewels, then with his elevated diction, then with his bearish embrace. They engage in a tense pas de deux, which climaxes with the odd, funny scene in which she asks whether he believes in God, and he deflects the question with another characteristically prolix speech. They repeat this exchange over and over again, at a crescendo.
As soon as Faust begins his courtship with Gretchen (using Mephistopheles as a wing man), we see the makings of both characters' undoing. Jackson choreographs their downfall beautifully. Ruocco's devil makes this game all the more perilous, and all the more fun to watch. He's constantly whispering in Faust's ear and delighting as the other characters make a mess of things. He watches bemusedly as Gretchen spins across the stage to show her emotional vertigo. At the end, after Gretchen gets burned and Faust seems on the verge of self-immolation, Mephistopheles is left standing. Paradoxically, he might be the play's real locus of morality.