Hellish production revives classic Elizabethan tragedy

Merely Player’s production of Christopher Marlowe’s “Doctor Faustus” will take place in the Shiva this Thursday, March 30 and Friday, March 31 at 9:30 p.m. and Saturday April 1, at 10:30 p.m. / Courtesy of Katie Scibelli

Hell used to be scary. People used to be afraid of the devil and anything satanic. But with the world’s current situation, we’ve begun to fear the real world and deemed the Underworld a cartoonishly playful realm instead. Now it’s time to rediscover this demonic terror.

Prepare for Merely Players’ production of Christopher Marlowe’s “Doctor Faustus” to turn the Shiva into a portal to hell this Thursday, Mar. 30, and Friday, Mar 31, at 9:30 p.m. and Saturday, Apr. 1, at 10:30 p.m. Patrick Higgins ’18 is directing and Katie Scibelli ’19 is stage managing, and the performance will run for approximately 80 minutes.

“Doctor Faustus,” originally written by Marlowe in the 16th century, follows the eponymous character, a scholar who strives to gain unlimited knowledge by signing a deal with Lucifer. Given the demon Mephistopheles as a servant, Faustus explores the limitations of man and the power of temptation in his journey.

Higgins began formulating his directorial debut with “Doctor Faustus” after he saw the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of the play in London last summer.

“I read a review for the show that was talking about it in relation to Theatre of Cruelty, which has I’ve always found interesting and it ties in with ritual. Theatre of Cruelty draws from an almost pseudo-magical kind of tradition, a belief that Artaud had. So I thought this would be a very fascinating lens to see it from,” he stated.

The domineering aesthetic of this production, the Theatre of Cruelty, was theorized by French avant-garde theorist Antonin Artaud in the 1930s and aims to free the repressed human being, causing discomfort and emotional confrontation for the audience. Much like Brecht’s Epic Theatre, this style aims to break down the barrier between the stage and the audience.

To apply this aesthetic to “Faustus,” Higgins guided both designers and actors to discover for themselves within the Theater of Cruelty. Providing the actors and designers with sources of inspiration, Higgins and Scibelli have organized the show to build a world for the production to live in.

Scibelli talked about how the show pushed for its aesthetic goals in rehearsal: “There’s been a lot of cross-over between different elements of the production, bridging that gap between the production team and the actors. As stage manager I help bridge that gap and get Patrick whatever he needs to create this wonderful cross-over atmosphere. That isn’t possible if we’d just called the five actors who have lines in a scene and never discussed it with anybody else. It’s been a very cross-departmental thing and I think he’s been doing really well to utilize that.”

Like the plays of Shakespeare, Marlowe’s works have seen numerous interpretations in production. Many lines from “Faustus” might seem familiar, but this production brings a unique approach to the piece. There are also two different texts of “Doctor Faustus,” which are referred to as the A text and the B text. This production will mainly follow the A text, which many scholars consider the legitimate version, while incorporating some of the scenes with scholars from the B text. Since Merely Players is a teaching organization, this production gives the ensemble opportunities to play more than one role.

Higgins, moreover, chose to include the ensemble more in the show to help create the production’s world. As he explained, “There are no small roles in this show. While most of it is Faustus talking to Mephistopheles, we’ve set it up that almost everyone is double- or triple-cast that isn’t Faustus or Mephistopheles. Every single actor there that is on the stage is doing a lot. The show is so fast with so many small scenes of ‘What’s going on?’ and the 24-year timespan is condensed to a few acts. Even with actors that are not per se experienced at Vassar, we’ve given them a lot to do.”

Christopher Marlowe was a contemporary of Shakespeare’s in the Elizabethan era. Also from the era is the blank verse in which “Faustus” was written. While this might seem challenging in a standard production, Merely’s production of “Faustus” incorporates elements of design and even influences the actors’ portrayals with a tint of modernity. The show also makes a few grotesque choices, such as the abundance of blood, which feeds into the exhilarating environment that remains at the play’s core.

Nicholas Franzen ’20 is set to portray the devilish half of this play’s main duo, Mephistopheles. Franzen spoke of how the production’s aesthetic influenced his character development: “Patrick has been really helpful in giving material to look at, visual and audio. I’ve taken a lot of vocal cues from Tom Waits and a lot of his music, which I wasn’t aware of before Faustus. But its been really interesting to see all of that stuff. I also went through really grainy photos and drew from that aesthetic, putting myself in that mindset. Viscerally, it will just be a fantastic experience.”

Besides a senior seminar on Artaud, there is very little Theater of Cruelty represented in the Vassar curriculum. For a community that strives to pushing boundaries and create art with an impact, both those involved with theatre and in the general Vassar community can both experience this aesthetic and be able to use the style in the future.

Higgins aims for the audience to react psychologically and viscerally to “Faustus,” saying, “One reason to see it is simply that we’ve put a lot of aesthetic work into it and that’s something I feel will be very different as a Vassar production. It’s very dark and it’s a very unique way. It’s very shocking. We actually were joking that maybe this is the show that will make Hell scary again…I don’t think this is a show where we’re trying to provoke a moral epiphany or that, but I think maybe it’s a moment to look at the psychology of these things being prevalent today.”

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