The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus

By Armstrong, Alan | Shakespeare Bulletin, Spring 2006 | Go to article overview

The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus


Armstrong, Alan, Shakespeare Bulletin


The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus

Presented by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival at the Elizabethan Theatre, Ashland, Oregon. June 8-October 7, 2005. Directed by James Edmondson. Set by Richard L. Hay. Costumes by Marie Anne Chiment. Lighting by Robert Peterson. Sound by Todd Barton. Fights by John Sipes. With Demetra Pittman/Robynn Rodriguez (Chorus), Jonathan Haugen (Doctor Faustus), Ray Porter (Mephistophilis), Shad Willingham (Wagner), Juan Rivera LeBron (Robin), Julia Pace Mitchell (Good Angel), Catherine Lynn Davis (Evil Angel), Kenneth Albers (Valdes), Abdul Salaam El Razzac (Cornelius), Brent Harris (Lucifer), James J. Peck (Beelzebub), Josiah Phillips (Pope Adrian), Laura Morache (Lechery, Helen of Troy), Sarah Rutan (Envy, Old Woman), Tyrone Wilson (Second Scholar, Gluttony) and others.

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival waited twenty-five years to begin performing the work of Shakespeare's contemporaries. After a 1960 performance of Webster's The Duchess of Malfi, OSF went on to produce plays by Jonson, Marlowe, Dekker, Beaumont, Ford, and Tourneur, until a fine 1993 production of Webster's The White Devil failed to fill the Elizabethan Theatre on weeknights. OSF has since avoided Shakespeare's contemporaries 'altogether, judging even Shakespeare plays with numbers in their titles to be better box-office bets than plays that lacked his name. On learning that Artistic Director Libby Appel would break the drought by including a Marlowe play in the 2005 repertory, I was disappointed that Doctor Faustus (a play already staged by OSF, in 1979) had gotten the nod rather than Tamburlaine, The Jew of Malta, or Edward IL But the production realized by the company's actors, designers, and director James Edmondson (an actor in the 1979 OSF production) richly justified the choice.

From the outset the show's technical demands taxed the resources of a repertory company even as large as OSF, with ten other plays in various stages of production. Nineteen people took part in the design meeting to determine how to build the show. Edmondson decided early on to scratch the horse-courser and leg-stealing scenes and to cut much of the Benvolio/Frederick material for want of actors (despite a cast of twenty-six). Five devils were pulled because of costume-shop limitations, and only in rehearsal did it become apparent that the production had exceeded the resources needed for the "headless Faustus" scene, which Edmondson reluctantly cut.

Audiences watching Doctor Faustus were delighted nevertheless by special effects which shared the exuberant spirit of the play's original staging, with its roaring devils, firecrackers, artificial thunder and lightning, and Henslowe's dragon-machine. The production turned the center-stage trap into a frightening Hell mouth, from which a fiery glow and billowing smoke emanated. To thin the congealing blood Faustus needed to sign his fatal pact, Mephistophilis casually shot a flame from his hand.

The production used its enormous, spectacular dragon to represent not Lucifer but Mephistophilis in his first hideous apparition, before he returned in the guise of a Franciscan friar. The equally astonishing Lucifer, appearing on the balcony with Mephistopheles and Beelzebub, above, looked like a rock star, resplendent in Rod Stewart hair, a feathery white cape, mid-thigh white boots, and an enormous lime-green codpiece. The Good and Evil Angels, too, appeared initially in alcoves above the stage, like paired, static illustrations in a medieval diptych. A few actors created the impression of a large swarm of agile devils, as menacing as the smaller raptors in a Jurassic Park movie. …

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