Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Two Deals with the Devil

Directed by Silviu Purcarete
For Teatrul National Radu Stanca in Sibiu, Romania.

Faust was staged in a warehouse in Sibiu, one of the prettiest towns in Transylvania. Sibiu was built by medieval Germans (Swabians), and its historic center looks like a fairy tale illustration. It was magical to see Faust here. Sibiu’s old town was projected in the windows of Faust’s study, a reminder of the city’s medieval past and the story’s modern-day relevance.

Talk about total theater. There’s only one word for this production: Fantastaspectaculomongogantic. The cast was roughly 80 strong. The live original musical score used two full choirs (one of them made solely of children) and a rock band. Dancers, children, puppets, fire-blowers, pyrotechnics, animals, exhausted stagehands – just imagining what it takes to produce a spectacle that size gives me acid reflux.

The design was gorgeous. The foreground of Faust’s large, decaying study was dominated by scholarly junk – a partial skeleton on a stand, a model of the digestive system, a stuffed rabbit standing on its hind legs, hunted by a stuffed fox. It made me miss my buddies at Curious Expeditions. The production was full of these kinds of obsessive details.

Despite the show’s epic proportions, the bald, potbellied Faust and tiny, twisted Mephistopheles (played by a snow-white woman in men’s clothing) dominated the action. Both gave incredibly intense, alive, physical performances.

Ilie Gheorghe (Faust) and Ofelia Popii (Mefisto)

I don’t speak Romanian, but it was clear Goethe’s play had been heavily adapted, streamlined to focus on the relationship between Faust and Mephistopheles. Marguerite/Gretchen appears, but Martha is gone, along with Siebel, Wagner, and many of the story’s other secondary characters. Still, I was able to follow the adapted story perfectly, thanks to Purcarete’s visceral images. To name just a few:

- As Faust summons Satan, the floorboards of his study tremble and rock, then suddenly burst open as an army of white demons leap out.

- A black dog runs through Faust’s open door. Faust eagerly catches its leash as it dives into a wardrobe. He pulls the dog back out into the open – but at the end of the leash he finds Mephistopheles.

- As she tempts Faust to sign away his soul, Mephistopheles slowly strips off her black tuxedo to reveal red flesh beneath her moon white face. She has a woman’s bare breasts, and a big red codpiece.

- As Faust flies off to Walpurgis Night, the stage splits in half. Demons leads the audience through the gap into the fire-lit, grotesque world of Walpurgis Night. Mephistopheles, dressed like a baroque aristocrat, wears an immense, aristocratic, red beehive wig. Rings of dancing demons cackle beneath a wall of fireworks. Debauched Gretchens, smeared with mud, rut with gigantic swine…and nightmarish murals in black and white loom on the walls…

- Death appears as a tall, thin, bald man wearing a corset and hoop skirt, his face painted like a skull. His movements are unbelievably gentle. When he speaks, his velvety, reassuring voice is so loud, it echoes in your bones.

Then there was Gretchen. I’ve always thought Faust and Gretchen’s relationship is hard for modern audiences to fully appreciate. After all, these days sex outside of marriage is extremely common. So is having a child out of wedlock. So how can we really understand how wrong it is for Faust to seduce Gretchen?

Purcarete solved this problem in a risky but effective way: Gretchen was played by a chorus of barely teenage girls, wearing white shifts, little anklet socks and mary janes. They carry lanterns and ring little silver bells to protect themselves against spirits. They are painfully young – and the middle-aged Faust becomes a borderline pedophile. What he’s doing is not noble, not sexy, not romantic, but just plain wrong. In the play’s most disturbing image, Mephistopheles lays one Gretchen on the floor, and slowly buries her hands beneath the girl’s white shift. The hands emerge bloody, and Faust trembles with excitement.

The Gretchen chorus helped me see the Faust story in a completely new way. It became a tale about how the devil uses the wicked to hurt the innocent. The message: people think they want love, but they crave sensation. And those who can’t feel love – the bored, the despairing, the damaged – can enjoy inflicting their pain on the whole and pure.

Perhaps the most surprising moment was at the very end, when God wins his bet with the devil by forgiving Faust. Mephistopheles is angry, hurt, but also inspired. She marvels at the miracle of divine love, the one thing the Devil isn’t expecting, is never expecting. She even flirts with the idea of repentance– but soon slowly spirals back into the old habit of hate.

My own favorite part, though, was actually the curtain call. After all of the spectacle, the suffering, the whole horrible tale, all 80-odd performers came out together to take their bows. There was something so touching about watching angels and devils, saints and sinners, children and monsters, turn their faces to the light and take a bow. That’s what we love about theater, right? And I thought I hope that’s the way it is when we die: the show is over, take a bow, and everyone is friends.

The Seafarer
By Conor McPherson
Directed by Jimmy Fay
at The Abbey Theatre, Dublin

The Seafarer was reviewed right and left during its New York run, so I’m not going to summarize the entire story here. The first act introduces the characters, all pretty standard-issue Miserable Irish Losers. Most are pickled, and all are stuck in dysfunctional relationships with their families and friends. The second act, a Christmas Eve card game, is much, much better. Most of the characters think they’re just playing poker with an affable, wealthy stranger. Only one man realizes he’s playing the devil for his soul. Now all the mundane details of the first act begin to resonate and take on cosmic significance. A man’s offer to loan his brother 20 Euros is actually a chance to save his sibling’s soul; a desperate bet becomes a prayer for redemption.

Different Devils

In The Seafarer, the Devil wants to damn people because he’s lonely. He doesn’t understand why God loves man so much – and he wants the whole world to suffer his own exile from the divine presence. (There’s a great Hungarian expression for this, roughly translated: “also the neighbor’s cow should die.”) He doesn’t really have any special powers (except pain rays that shoot from his fingers like the Emperor in Star Wars and, of course, omniscience). He must convince men to damn themselves.

The Seafarer’s men are lushes that still have faith. Their sins are despair, envy, and mourning for the lost past – the sides of themselves that mirror the Devil, trapped in his fear, dread, and bottomless longing. These men are pretty sure they’re doomed, but they gamble on divine forgiveness.

Purcarete’s Faust offers a far different vision of man and devil. Faust delights in the drama and excitement of evil. He destroys other peoples’ lives just to see what will happen. He’s in the grip of an epic self-delusion: he thinks he’s a romantic hero or a deep thinker, when in fact he’s just a common criminal. But in the end, he’s still saved. Faust says the more God can forgive, the greater he is. We deserve to be damned, but we are not – and we’re lucky the decision is not up to us.

Many thanks to Andras Visky for bringing me along to see Faust in Sibiu – but even more for his amazing, gut wrenching play Long Friday, which I got to see in Cluj’s Hungarian State Theater. Stay tuned for more on his work!

1 comment:

Emily said...

Dear Sarah,

You are the rat in the basket. Every time I read anything you have written I am reminded that you are a genius and hope that other people around you recognize this fact. I promise that when you come back to the U.S. I will visit you more than once every three years.

the other rat in the basket