SF Bay Guardian, April 26, 1995
Neva Chonin

Canonical texts are tar pits for cocky iconoclasts; modern takes on classics run a two-to-one chance of sinking under their own pretensions. With their splendid reworking of Christopher Marlowe's Dr. Faustus, the Shotgun Players eloquently beat the odds.

The tale is well-known and oft told: Dr. Faustus, an arrogant metaphysician, sells his soul to the devil for a few decades of power, pleasure, and knowledge. He repents too late and, like Lucifer himself, falls victim to his own ego. In updating the play, director Patrick Dooley forgoes vulgar polemics in favor of sly disruptions of text and context. Gender-bending abounds - Mephistopheles (Vanessa Hopkins), for example, appears in female form while remaining masculine in spoken dialogue, a contradiction that injects a new eroticism into his/her relationship with Faustus. Meaning is often shifted through delicate inflections, as when the arrival of Lucifer (Richard Reinholdt) in a vulgar red smoking jacket triggers in Faustus a revulsion more aesthetic than moral: 'What are thou that looks' - a slight curl of the lip - 'so terrible?'

In the title role, Aaron Davidman combines intellectual and sensual appetites into a restless, metaphysical hunger; and Michael Storm puts in a showstopping performance as the Seven Deadly Sins, morphing from glutton to sloth to slut with seamless ease. The cast makes good use of its (appropriately) subterranean theater, literally hanging from the reafters to create this wickedly entertaining twist on a masterpiece.

East Bay Express, April, 1995
Christopher Hawthorne

"Something quite different is happening on the other side of the UC campus, where at La Val's Subterranean the Shotgun Players give Christopher Marlowe's Doctor Faustus the full-bore treatment. It's almost too much of a good thing. The production maintains an energy level that rarely dips below crazed; actors fly around the stage, swing from the low rafters, and stretch the intimate space to its limit. They work the crowd - and on a good night the Players draw more crowd, hyped-up and vocal, than audience - they work the material; they just generally work it. You get the feeling the cast gets together the night before a performance to carbo-load, the way swim teams do.

It's a gamble, this wild approach, because although Dr. Faustus is a play full of emotion, it's also, at times, a quiet, contemplative one. It's a successful gamble because the play is well-suited to the kind of ringing affirmation it gets here. A more thorough exploration of the play's complexity would have risked undermining its considerable and enjoyable momentum.

The play tells the story of the man who sells his soul to the devil (later explored by Goethe, among others, through Goethe's version adds a redemptive ending). Dr. Faustus (Aaron Davidman) is a thoroughly educated man who begins to doubt that a life of words and faith will be enough to sustain him. He curses the full contents of his impressive collection of books - history, phiolosphy - and eventually Christianity itself. That's more than enough to bring the devil's henchmen calling on him in his richly appointed library (beautifully executed by set designer Michael Frassinelli), and, before you know it, Faustus has signed on the barbed line.

From then on the play expands in all directions. New characters emerge from every side, leaving Faustus for a time in the eye of a gathering storm. Mephistopheles, here played by a woman (Vanessa Hopkins) in an effort to emphasize Faustus' almost sexual lust for the dark side of life, steps out of the shadows; a host of spirits and comic figures appear and keep forcing the pace. Then Faustus, too, begins to spin, weaving around the stage in crazy arcs, spewing increasingly crazed dialogue and beginning to realize the ramifications of his bargain.

Davidman, borrowed from his usual home at the Berkeley Theater Project, is in rare form as the bad doctor. He paces, frets, bleeds, strokes his goatee, scrawls frenzied chalk circles on the floor, incants to spirits above and below. He has inhaled the force of his character, from his early aristocratic stature all the way through his decline to pure doubled-over emotionalism. As hell envelops him you can see its hugeness reflected in his eyes. But he also suggests a delicacy in Faustus' ravings that strikes, I think, right at the heart of the man. In the end, after all the yelling and screaming have gotten him nowhere, it's the anguished, hanging silence that really makes him crazy. Davidman takes enough deep breaths to tell that side of the story too.

The supporting cast is excellent, for the most part - Michael Storm leads the way by playing more than a half-dozen roles to the hilt - but their antics sometimes threaten to overwhelm Davidman's more careful performance. They could have toned it down some - you don't want the audience going home, after all, remembering all of Falstaff's lines and none of King Henry's. But you can't fault the Players if their enthusiasm runs rampant. They've taken a faded classic and brought it boldly into the present, injecting it with life and verve and the rush of movement. It's hell on wheels.


Farella Braun & Martel, May 8, 1995

The Anonymous Theatre Critic recommends very highly Shotgun Players' current production of Christopher Marlowe's The Tragical Historie of Doctor Faustus. What could have been merely a curiosity really comes to life under Patrick Dooley's exuberant direction.

The vital center of the play is Aaron Davidman's brilliantly lucid Faustus. Davidman gives the part such an intelligent and transparent reading that he transcends the archaic conventions of Marlowe's potboiler and allows us inside Faustus' head and heart. He speaks so clearly that the audience can hear and understand every syllable - not an easy thing to do with Jacobean poetry. Your eyes can't leave him; your attention can't wander when he speaks. He's funny wherever the line permits, and riveting even in Marlowe's most melodramatic flourishes. It is the kind of performance your critic goes to the theatre week after week hoping occasionally to see, and it makes this show something not to miss. Michael Storm is also excellent in a series of small parts, and stops the show several times (especially in a choice turn as all seven deadly sins).

There are some rough spots. It is unfortunate that Vanessa Hopkins wastes an inspired bit of non-traditional casting by playing Mephistopheles like a drugged-out zombie. The central conflict in Faustus' soul is set by Marlowe so firmly in the context of pre-Reformation Catholicism as to be hard for many 20th-century secular hearers to relate to (Davidman's luminous realization of the characters helps us accept this). And the low comedy parts, which were a mandatory convention of Jacobean theatre, are not well handled (even in Shakespeare these interludes sometimes require wildly imaginative treatment to please a modern audience).

But these problems are not enough to check the show's energy. By the second act the audience was applauding after every scene. It certainly added to the effect that La Val's Subterranean Theatre in Berkeley looks and feels like the cellar of a Jacobean alehouse - on three occasions characters literally hung by their fingers from the ceiling.

The bad news is that the show closed at La Val's before this review could see print; but the good news is that it will come to San Francisco at the end of the month.


Drama-Logue, June 15, 1995
Dean Goodman

Both in casting and costuming, Dooley has given the Shotgun production a sense of timelessness. Michael Frassinelli's solid set representing Faustus' study contains shelves of books, medicine cabinets filled with vials, a human skull, classic sculpture, paintings and a work desk lit by candles, all of which suggests a medieval era. The actors, however, appear in body stockings and leotards, and even jackets and modern jeans, though costumer Laura McNall has dressed the royals in richly decorated robes. The thrust of the play could take place in any period, and the director has also given the drama a gender-bend: in the seven member ensemble women appear in male roles, while men play some of the female parts. It all adds up to a stunning effect, with appropriate musical selections fitting the moods of the moment.

The acting is uniformly excellent, with the 30-odd characters clearly defined and well-spoken. Aaron Davidman makes an impressive Faustus, rising to a shattering emotional climax in the final scene. Vanessa Hopkins' Mephistopheles is deadly calm, then autocratically chilling and lascivious as the play progresses. Richard Silberg adds a comic touch as Robin the Olster, and Michael Storm is particularly fine as he interprets the seven deadly sins and in another horrifying sequence as Faustus' bride. Richard Reinholdt, Judy Phillips and Tania Rodrigues all perform their assignments with gusto and panache.

Dooley has made extremely good use of the 450 Studio Space (formerly an ACT rehearsal hall), staging the play with imagination and taste. The production is a hypnotic theatrical experience, deeply absorbing in its intensity.

San Francisco Chronicle, May 27, 1995
Steve Winn

Gender-Swapping Company Stages a Sexy `Dr. Faustus'

The 450 Geary Studio Theater is working the way a black box should right now, with one show after another making use of the flexible space.

After a successful run at a coffeehouse basement theater in Berkeley, the Shotgun Players' version of The Tragical Historie of Doctor Faustus, Marlowe's 17th century drama about a scholar who barters his soul to the devil, has crossed the bridge with a cast that freely crosses the gender line. Michael Storm plays the Hot Whore. Judy Phillips is the Pope. Most important, Vanessa Hopkins is a female Mephistopheles -- an Edward Gorey vision in scarlet robe, exaggerated black-on- white makeup and an alto profundo voice.

In Patrick Dooley's production, modern costumes and music by Peter Gabriel and Jajouka are jumbled together with the conventional trappings of Wittenburg necromancy -- candles, cowled robes, a set (by Michael Frassinelli) of carved wooden doors, heavy tomes and religious bric-a- brac. There are elements of high Gothic camp and commedia dell'arte pranks (a pair of devils sporting enormous fabric genitalia).

But the Shotgun Players aren't just shooting in the dark here. This Faustus, despite some spotty acting and inept scenes, supplies a spin that does more than move the play in circles. In giving the deadly contract between Faust and Mephistopheles a sexual valence, Dooley invigorates the central relationship without imposing a polemic on it.