Wednesday, October 10, 2018

THE HYSTERIA OF DR FAUSTUS: Gutsy, Small Theater Company Takes the Next Leap with This Original Work Based on the Faust Legend

Brandon Walker (right) as Dr. Faust solidifies a pact
 to sell his soul to Mephistopheles (Eric Cronican)
in exchange for a life of pleasure, fame and fortune.
Photo by Russ Rowland

The Seeing Place Theater is unique among the treasure trove of (sadly) underfunded small companies that occupy various corners of New York City, making theatrical magic out of sheer willpower, talent, and bottomless imagination. Where others come together, sometimes just for a single production, The Seeing Place is now entering its ninth season, bravely taking on everything from Shakespeare to Martin McDonaugh, to John Osborne, to Tom Stoppard and Caryl Churchill.  

What makes The Seeing Place well worth keeping an eye on is not just that they go out of their way to select challenging works, and not even that they always strive to place a new spin on them. It's that they keep challenging themselves to avoid repetition or predictability, while keeping true to their mission of offering visceral, intimate, and honest productions that carry with them the edginess of actor-driven improvisation. This is not something you can fake, and it is the reason I make room on my calendar to check them out as often as I can.  

So what do you do after eight seasons of classics, contemporary, and experimental works?  In this case, what you do is come up with an original play, an adaptation of the oft-told tale of Faust, a man who sells his soul in exchange for experiencing the pleasures that have eluded him for his entire life: money, power, fame, and sex. 

Titled The Hysteria of Dr Faustus, the play, in performance at the Paradise Factory through October 21, was written by The Seeing Place's producing artistic director Brandon Walker. In it, Walker examines the famous story through contemporary eyes, while staying true to its origins and various interpretations by, among others, Goethe, Marlowe, and Gounod.  

In this iteration, Walker plays both the elderly Heinrich Faustus, a physics professor fed up with having to deal with bored, self-absorbed and disaffected students, and the younger, transformed "Henry Faust," who has happily signed away his soul to Mephistopheles. The latter is played by Erin Cronican, the company's executive artistic director, who also directs the production. 

The plot follows the traditional Faust storyline, from the title character's initial unhappiness, self-loathing and attempted suicide; through his pact with the Devil's minion; the wooing and seduction of Gretchen, the innocent woman (Broghanne Jessamine) whose life he will ruin; and his own final downfall.     Walker places a modern spin on things, not just by setting it in today's world, but by emphasizing the #MeToo elements within the story.  

Faust  is readily caught up in the power that seems to come with the territory of being an attractive and wealthy young man. Supported by the overseeing Mephistopheles, Faust blithely shatters the lives of the play's female characters, the virginal and pious Gretchen, her aunt (Candice Oden), and his own loyal assistant (also played by Ms. Cronican). More pointedly, no matter how much harm he does, he denies culpability at every turn, a familiar trope to anyone who has followed the drama surrounding the likes of Bill Cosby, Harvey Weinstein, and Brett Kavanaugh. 

Broghanne Jessamine and Candice Oden
Photo by Russ Rowland

Brandon Walker as Faust
Photo by Russ Rowland

The Hysteria of Dr Faustus works best when it focuses on this major theme, in which the Faust character becomes more and more like Robert Louis Stevenson's "Mr. Hyde," or  the kind of predatory, self-important, entitled man of wealth and power whose misdeeds have been subjected to much public scrutiny of late. 

Truthfully, there are a few tangential plot elements that pull the play in too many directions and weaken its overall impact.  A tour of hell and an overlong seduction scene, for example, weigh down the first Act. A twenty-minute trim would sharpen things significantly.  Still and all, The Seeing Place Theater is to be commended for its continuing efforts at exploring new territory. This play is well-worth seeing, and, more importantly, it represents the next great leap forward for this always-exciting company.  


Feel free to share this blog with your friends, and to offer up your own theater stories by posting a comment. I also invite you to check out the website Show-Score.Com, where you will find capsule reviews of current plays from Yours Truly and many other New York critics.

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