To say FAUST was very challenging is understating the efforts put into the production written by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and presented by the Resident Ensemble Players (REP) at the University of Delaware. Adaptor and Director, Heinz-Uew Haus, and a brilliant group of designers and technicians start slowly. The audience is unaware of what is to come because the curtain is closed when they enter. They see no set to help them develop a sense of time and place. Little do they realize what is actually lurking behind that curtain. Even Goethe felt the audience would need help and so the play begins with a front-of-curtain prologue of sorts in which theatrical characters talk about the problems associated with performing a “mighty tale”.
The formal name of the play can be translated as “Faust: The First Part of the Tragedy”. Yes, there is a “Faust: The Second Part of the Tragedy” but seldom is that performed. In keeping with that tradition, REP presents us the characters and actions from the first part. Those familiar with classic literature will recognize the name Faust and identify it with a self-serving man who makes a deal with the devil, Mephisto, to continue his decadent ways until Faust decides he has had enough which he feels he will never do. When that happens, Faust will die and forever serve Mephisto in Hell. Other literary references to this original story usually infer that Faust is a condemned soul who ultimately faces his tormented fate. Au contraire! It appears that Goethe left the first part of his Faustian story open ended. There is no final scene of Faust being dragged to the depths of Hell. Instead audiences need to struggle with what they have just seen and justify what has happened according to their own spiritual and societal beliefs. Goethe was writing about the Germanic mores of his time but in a way that keeps them appropriate for any time. Goethe ended his FAUST in the second part, and there will be no spoiling here.
Haus does use his actors well in presenting the various stereotypes of this piece. The cynical, evil and plotting Mephisto is played with charisma and physical electricity by Mic Matarrese. Matarrese teams up with Martha played by Kathleen Pirkl Tague for some well played, and much needed, comic moments. The innocent Gretchen played by Sara J. Griffin has a small amount of stage time but makes a large impression. Griffin carries each of her scenes and easily presents a naïve girl slowing becoming sexually aware and then, upon her abandonment, falling into the depths of despair and eventual insanity. A wizened Stephen Pelinski as Faust seems to struggle at first with presentation of his age and desires, but once Mephisto gives him back his youth and ebullience, Pelinski relishes the role and his rogue-ish Faust brings both grins and groans from the audience as he steadily and easily seduces Gretchen making his later abandonment of her most hurtful. The supporting ensemble, as usual at the REP, brought both distinct and interesting characters to life.
Once the curtain opens audience senses are assailed with light and shadow, figures rising and falling, and brilliant reds interspersed with earth tones and black symbolizing the constant conflict between good and evil. The entire stage area including the house itself is used with Haus’s direction to bring a you-are-there sensibility. When a production is not defined by a single set, it is important that each piece used does its job well. Besides creating visual and auditory impacts working with the experienced technicians associated with the REP, Haus incorporated “Flying by FOY” and pyrotechnic effects by Celebration Fireworks. Working together well for the most part, all of these pieces provide a bombastic sensual assault which walks a thin line between supporting and overwhelming the production. The question, “Was all of that necessary?” is something each audience member will need to ponder.
FAUST is a complex piece of theatre leaving each audience member with questions at the end. These questions are posed with theatrical precision by the REP, and the answers will be derived by person as they consider what they saw and what it specifically said to them about the world and our appreciation of it and place in it. FAUST is well worth seeing. It is some of that “thinking” theatre which is so often ignored nowadays. Come to the REP and think! You will be glad you did.
Written by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Adapted and directed by Heinz-Uwe Haus
March 6 – 23, 2014
Resident Ensemble Players
Roselle Center for the Arts
110 Orchard Road
University of Delaware
Newark, DE 19716