German literature has a rich tradition of drama with epic proportions. There's Wagner's Ring cycle, of course, and Brecht's self-styled "epic theater." Though lesser known, there's also Karl Kraus's play The Last Days of Mankind, which was so long he claimed it could be performed only on Mars, and Rainer Werner Fassbinder's fifteen-and-a-half-hour film Berlin Alexanderplatz. But the granddaddy of all of these sprawling Teutonic masterworks, which often are as impossible to watch as they are to stage, is Goethe's Faust. Clocking in at just over six hours, it's a work that is often read (or at least assigned) in college, yet rarely given a full production stateside.
It's not just the length of Faust that intimidates directors and producers; it's the wildly incongruous plot and fantastic stage directions as well. In Part I, which is the more conventional of the two parts by far (and makes sense as a self-contained play), we witness Faust, a lonely man of learning, surrounded by his books, globes, alchemy instruments, and astrolabes. Still, he possesses a desire to overcome his own academic verbiage, ever striving and seeking a transcendent knowledge of experience.
In fact, Faust has just retranslated the first line of Genesis as "In the beginning was the…Deed" when a poodle he found on a nature hike transforms into Mephistopheles, a devil. The poodle, which struck me as silly or bathetic when I read the text years ago, was one of the great surprises of watching a staged production. It is played by an actor in a giant papier-mâché costume and comes off as a wonderfully theatrical element of the ridiculous.
The devil, of course, has come to strike a bargain. Mephistopheles gets Faust's soul if he can find one moment that Faust believes contents him perfectly.
Mephistopheles then whisks Faust away to a rowdy bar to show him a good time; when this doesn't work, he takes Faust to an orgiastic rite of primitive witches (played by absurdly cross-dressing actors). Next, Mephistopheles concocts a plan to get a simple young peasant girl, Gretchen, to fall in love with him. But, as these things are apt to do, the affair ends badly: Gretchen had to kill her mother and her baby. With her suicide, she ascends to heaven, forgiving all, while Faust is still found wanting.
Part II is a crazy roller-coaster ride through several mythological realms, as Mephistopheles now pulls out all the stops to find Faust a transcendent moment. Faust whizzes around through world-historical zeitgeists, from an ancient Egypt of griffins and sphinxes flapping their golden feathers to a future where a mad scientist has created a little man glowing inside a test tube.
One fantastical scene has the man-made "homunculus" riding on the back of the sea god Proteus, who has turned into a dolphin. To stage the scene, actors in costumes hold props representing their characters in action. Nearby, several sea nymphs frolic on the half-shell, reminding me of scenes of mythological mischief from Matthew Barney's The Cremaster Cycle.
In the middle of Part II, there is an hourlong play-within-a-play featuring Helen of Troy. Helen and Faust have a child, and there is a funny scene in which their child, represented by a surprisingly expressive puppet, hops and skitters around the mountainsides.
Suffice it to say, however, that Faust is never satisfied, and the tragedy belongs to Mephistopheles. If the second half of Part II begins to lag with its sheer glut of myth and profusion of characters, one wants to be sure to wait for the finale. Devils dance around with giant masks that make them look like bobblehead dolls, endless streams of silver confetti pour down from the ceiling, and a chorus of angels sings an operatic hymn to life.
In fact, director David Herskovits has inserted many imaginative touches throughout the production, emphasizing the self-consciously theatrical quality of the text, which is often interpreted "poetically." For example, stagehands hilariously prance out onstage to hold a cloth to cover Gretchen when she is changing and, later, to cover the destruction of a violin.
Set designer Carol Bailey has given different scenes radically distinctive styles, from romantic gardens painted on a backcloth, to a small proscenium stage for the miniplay, to plywood cutouts for the mountain crags.
While all of the actors are adequate, David Greenspan, playing a dapper Mephistopheles, has the edge of worldly savoir-faire and insouciant archness necessary to convey the obsessive scheming of a devil who's seen it all. His character shifts from making flip gestures and snide wisecracks to having genuine pathos in his "death" speech. Douglas Langworthy's new translation uses a snappy, vernacular verse that emphasizes the off-the-cuff wit of the original.
If you have the stamina, seek out this rare opportunity to experience a transcendently theatrical staging of an epically proportioned classic.