Reviewed by Gregor Collins
The Seeing Place Theater Artistic Directors Erin Cronican and Brandon Walker could have easily bitten off more than they could chew by attempting The Hysteria of Dr. Faustus—the German legend about an old man named Faust who sells his soul to the devil in exchange for more time, more power, and more happiness.
They could have thrown together an erudite-looking poster, told all their erudite friends to come, and sat back and felt—even if people leaving the theater couldn’t quite wrap their heads around it—that they had already succeeded: At least we had the guts to tackle one of the most complex stories ever told.
But—and this is coming from a hardened theater critic—they went further than that, (mostly) pulling off something I don’t think many other independent theater companies could have pulled off in quite the same way.
They make it their own in a multitude of ways, but their modern twist—The Devil being played by a woman (Cronican) rather than a man—adds a unique dynamic between the two leads that serves well in certain scenes. For example, when Faust is trying to make a play on Gretchen (played by Broghanne Jessamine), The Devil, through exchanges only the two can hear, gives Faust cheeky play-by-play courtship pointers—“Kiss her, relax, don’t sit like that,” etc—lending a levity to moments that otherwise would have been nonsensical with two men.
“Another thing that was important in bringing the story to life,” explains Cronican, who also directs the play, “is the magical element, for which we used lush projections, sleight of hand magic, and haunting music. We want our modern audience to have a feeling of the story being graphically presented, not only to invigorate their imaginations but also to make the thriller aspect of the play more hair-raising and immediate.”
Walker, who plays Faust and also wrote the script, opens the play as a curmudgeon fighting depression and boredom. Over the course of the play we watch him blossom into a charismatic British novelist, so adroitly in fact, that we somehow can’t ever imagine him going back to being an old man.
Though there have been many iterations of the folklore over the centuries, the most popular are the two plays The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus by Christopher Marlowe, and Faust by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. The text Walker primarily worked from during the writing process, though, was Historia & Tale of Doctor Johannes Faustus, written by an “anonymous German author.”
“The play is very relevant today,” says Walker, “and yet there were no versions of it that we could find that were modern or easily understandable. You don’t get to see why the actions are happening. I spoke with a well-known playwright recently who had given a shot at an adaptation of Dr. Faustus and got swallowed up in the complexities of the story, never quite completing it. I was swallowed up but we had a show to get up, and so we just made it happen.”
Walker may have written the twisting and turning script, but it was a real team effort to put it to stage. All four actors—Walker, Cronican, Jessamine, and Candice Oden, who plays Martha—were instrumental in its development for an audience.
If I had my druthers I would have significantly shortened the script—at an over two-hour running time, towards the end it began to feel slightly lumbering—but there isn’t much to complain about here, especially because it rewards you with a sudden, surprise ending.
In the Off-Off Broadway world, while it’s fairly often that you see something visually inventive, or something that makes you think, “Team Seeing Place” manages to marry them both, a much rarer feat, deserving of packed houses.
THE HYSTERIA OF DR FAUSTUS plays October 7-21, 2018 GENERAL ADMISSION – $20 (select tickets $10) www.TheSeeingPlace.com The Seeing Place @ the Paradise Factory 64 East 4th Street, NYC