Review: Doctor Faustus is Medieval Evil on Modest Means

Jackie Leahy ’14
Arts Editor

“Faustus sold his soul ’cause he was unhappy with his academic life. If it were me, I would have done that twice.”

This quote, overheard at the premiere performance of the Smith Student Theatre Committee’s Doctor Faustus on Friday, March 29, set the stage for a modern adaptation of Christopher Marlowe’s play about a man who makes a deal with the devil in order to become more knowledgeable about the workings of the world. For the past week, pentagrams, sigils and devil’s traps decorated Smith sidewalks in order to promote this performance – many of them accompanied with the cryptic question, “WHAT WOULD YOU SELL YOUR SOUL FOR?” Based on this kind of publicity, the play surprisingly featured a character called “Sin” wearing Avengers pajama pants, a preppily-clad villain with stag horns and a main character wearing a classic little black dress.

However, this production of Doctor Faustus shows that even a 500-year-old text, unknown and sadly unappreciated by many people today, can become a play that a modern-day audience can thoroughly understand and appreciate.

The directors, Emily Atkinson ’13 and Kat Blakeslee ’13, played the main characters, Dr. Faustus and Mephistopheles. In a letter accompanying the program, they told us that this play was the result of a long process of discovering the play, staging it and bringing it to life – mostly on their own. They said that they had reservations about Doctor Faustus – they didn’t think they would be able to enjoy something so old and so long. Going to watch the play, I had the same concerns. A full three-hour performance without advanced pyrotechnics or theatrical wizardry seemed like it would hardly have kept anyone’s interest. But the cuts in the script did not lose anything important in the plot or the audience’s interest.

In fact, the directors added a bunch of fun touches that kept the production relevant to a specifically Smith audience. One such detail was the meticulous gender-swap of all male pronouns or references to masculinity to female pronouns: “John” became “Jane,” “my lord” became “my lady,” and every “he” or “his” became “she” and “her.”

The directors explained, “We chose to change the gender of some of the characters to better represent the makeup of the modern world, and because we believe that women can be hubristic and arrogant mad scholars, too, as well as demons. As well as Empresses.”

The costumes were also casually modern: in the first scene, our heroine wore blue jeans, Converse, and a standard lab coat (with the Tyvek logo, no less). Other characters had a similar wardrobe of blue jeans and tennis shoes. Due to budget constraints and the play’s modern setting, the costumes were not much to speak of, save for one hilarious detail: the character of “Envy” was wearing a Mount Holyoke hoodie.

Sadly, for what could have been a more visually compelling performance, this production was under-budgeted, being a production from the Student Theatre Committee and not an official Smith Theatre production. Nevertheless, a small budget did not prevent the directors from creating plenty of standout moments.

For me, the highlight was the end. Faustus’ final pious plea for more time to repent and another chance at salvation, preluded the chilling song “O Death,” which fans of the TV show Supernatural will recognize. Pools of dark red light bathed the actors as they drawled this chillingly haunting conclusion – I must admit, it gave me goosebumps. It was an intelligently fitting choice on the directors’ part.

This was also true of the scene immediately following the conclusion: the curtain call, which, much like Marat/Sade, Smith Theatre’s most recent production, was completely in-character, with the Good and Bad Angels continuing to circle off against each other and Lucifer aggressively dragging a distressed Faustus up with her.

It was obvious that the actors were all very dedicated to making the show a success. While many actors have a tendency to read old verse-like song lyrics by awkwardly halting after each line break, I heard none of that from any of the cast. Chalk it up to the months of rehearsal, I suppose, but even the centuries-old text sounded like natural dialogue. Two of my favorite performances came from Maryellen Riccio ’16, whose zeal for playing the Evil Angel was obvious in her snarling, hissing delivery. Emily Derosier ’16 was an audience favorite: her solid delivery of her humorous characters (namely Robin and Gluttony) provided the best comic relief in the show and won a lot of laughs.

If I have any criticism to give, it is that sometimes realism superseded suspension of disbelief. This play is about black magic, which I do not think was as visually evident in this production as it could have been. But I don’t fault the directors; for, as their letter explains, “We chose to modernize the staging of our production both due to budget constraints and because we wanted to undermine how clearly the dark, tragic energy of the play still calls to us 500 years after it was written.”

When I met the directors after the show, it was obvious that they were thrilled to have finally brought their long-awaited passion project to life. Even though they’re seniors, I definitely think that any future project they do (though hopefully with a bigger budget!) will show as much passion for performance as this one did.

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