Bay Guardian, April
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.
Bay Express, April,
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
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
Braun & Martel,
May 8, 1995
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.
June 15, 1995
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
Francisco Chronicle, May 27,
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.