Faust in Love, now playing at the Ohio Theater, is part two of Target Margin Theater's adaptation of Goethe's masterpiece. This second installment of the production's trilogy, which will be completed next year, concerns the most well-known aspect of the Faust legend: his romance with Gretchen (Eunice Wong), a young and innocent girl. As the story goes, Faust (George Hannah), aided by the demon Mephistopheles (David Greenspan), successfully woos Gretchen with gifts, sleeps with her and ruins her reputation, and then abandons her by taking a little vacation to hell. Upon his return, he discovers that his lover has gone mad and is imprisoned for murder. Faust finds himself torn between his desire to save Gretchen and Mephistopheles's insistence that he save himself. Directed by Target Margin's artistic director, David Herskovits, Faust in Love is a slick affair, with plenty of sly winks and nudges to the culturally savvy audience. The show's self-aware theatricality serves as both its most impressive and most detrimental aspect. While Herskovits's attention to production values makes Faust a visual joy to watch, the style of the show is so attention-grabbing that it sometimes distracts the audience from the story itself. The lighting is distinctive and dramatic, the sound design is playful and engaging, and the set changes are fluid and magical. But against the ever-changing backdrop of such beautifully crafted shapes and colors, the characters' conflict and desires seem bland in comparison, despite the efforts of the energetic and talented cast.
The play really shines during its scene changes, unlike most shows, which simply try to get through them as quickly as possible. Herskovits turns these transitional moments into tightly choreographed mini-scenes, during which a flurry of movement is coupled with an exciting burst of music. As the show progresses, the set evolves, gradually revealing a striking depth that dramatically portrays a variety of locations and symbolically represents the distance that develops between Faust and Gretchen. During the transitions, the audience experiences a revelation of space, and when the curtains and flys are removed, one can almost feel a collective shiver of delight rolling through the crowd.
The play's heightened sense of theatricality sometimes works to great dramatic effect, as in Gretchen's prolonged silence when she describes holding her dead sister as a baby. During this scene, the audience's attention was rapt as she wordlessly rocked her empty arms, proving that silence really can speak volumes. At other times, the directorial choices seemed overly devised and even a bit smug.
For instance, a sparkly curtain often appears to hide certain actions from the audience. At one point, someone mimes stomping on a ukulele behind the curtain, while cartoonish sound effects add a comical effect. The curtain is removed to reveal a now-broken ukulele. Although somewhat amusing, bits of business like this often seem gratuitous and out of place. It is difficult to tell whether Herskovits is attempting to make the story interesting by highlighting certain aspects of it, or whether he is simply trying to distract our attention from the boring bits by using any possible means.
The last scene of the play, in which Faust attempts to rescue Gretchen, is a welcome relief from theatrical tricks and gags. Their confrontation is played out in a straightforward manner and thus generates one of the most meaty and thought-provoking interactions of the evening. Once the tongue-in-cheek commentary is turned off, the actors are allowed to get down to the business of really responding to each other, and it is a joy to see. Although it might be nice if there were more of these moments in the play, it is satisfying that Faust ends on this emotional high note.
Herskovits stuffs a surprising amount of humor into the production, and the action proceeds at a pleasantly quick pace. He has successfully put a fresh, new spin on an old play, and the superficial elements of the production shine with style, grace, and a lot of charm. Although the characters may not inspire much empathy or interest, this is still a thoroughly engaging piece of theater, and Target Margin proves that there is more to a good play than simply a good story. In Faust in Love the set is not just an indication of where the characters are; it is the hat from which the magician pulls a rabbit. The costumes do not merely keep the actors from being naked, and the lighting creates much, much more than simply a lack of darkness.