(Bear with my lowbrow metaphor for just a moment.) On a new television series I’ve grown quite fond of, one character casually tosses evidence in front of another character they plan to blackmail with it. The object of the blackmailing responds, “You can only play this card once. Are you sure you want to play it now?”
That question rang in my head many times as I watched Sandbox Theatre‘s new company created work .faust (pronounced “dot faust”) unfold. Say what you will about the artists of Sandbox Theatre. No one can deny they have enormous (metaphorical, artistic) balls.
Some of the big cards they played in .faust were of a physical variety. Sandbox doesn’t have “sets” the same way other theater companies do. They’re striving to be a green company, and that entails recycling on a pretty basic level, as in the stage environment itself. So the first layer of the setting is a floor-to-rafters unbroken curtain of sheets of fabric, spanning the full length of the fairly lengthy Red Eye stage. The whole affair hung very close to the front of the stage. But it was clear that once the thing came down, it wasn’t going back up again. Behind that, a very imposing high wall of metal (?), hinged at the bottom so it too could be knocked down. Perhaps it could go back up during the show itself, but it seemed unlikely.
|.faust, playing through november 21 at the red eye theater. for tickets ($18) and information, see sandboxtheatreonline.com.|
You can only pull that curtain down once, are you sure you want to do it now? Turns out, that big flourish, quite early in the game, was perfectly placed to transition from the world of a puppet Faust, to a human one, or rather three.
Other big cards were more on the storytelling/spectacle end of things. You can only introduce the devil once. You can only unmask the devil’s human face once. You can only unlock the vastness of inner and outer space at the same time once. You can only pit a tireless doctor against unrelenting death once. You can only play the mommy card once. The sheer economy of this spin on the Faust legend is one of its chief virtues. In just a little over an hour’s time, we get not one, not two, but three Fausts.
But this Faust isn’t really about making a deal with the devil that eventually comes due. No souls are bartered here. No ticking clock counts down the minutes until Faust loses all he has gained. The exploration of this particular Faustian bargain centers on a question that isn’t religious, though it may be spiritual. Is it possible to get everything you ever wanted, even if someone is standing there offering it to you?
There are three concurrent incarnations of Faust who all make that pact with Mephistopheles (Derek Miller)—a scientist Faust (Wade Vaughan), a hedonist Faust (Ryan Hill), and a medical Faust (Heather Stone), all of whom share the same Wagner (Christopher Kehoe) serving their different needs. The devil offers them each exactly what they most desire. For the scientist, unfettered access to all the answers. For the hedonist, all the variations on sensual pleasure he could possibly imagine, with as many partners as he can handle. For the doctor, the power to cure any disease.
But there is no bottom to the well of knowledge, and not enough time to pass on to others everything you know—assuming you could be sure they’d understand you in the first place. And despite receiving all you want, there may be some people you still can’t satisfy with simple abundance. Finally, though doctors can cure many ailments, humans are still mortal, and there is no cure for death. All of that should be obvious, but each Faust has to learn the hard way. In true Sandbox style, each overlapping lesson is inventively staged in a combination of language both verbal and physical, buoyed up by music and sound (courtesy of Tim Donahue). By the time a new trio of performers takes over the operation of the puppet Faust, we’ve all been on quite a journey in a short span of time.
Back to those balls—the artists of Sandbox Theater seem to have absolutely no fear of being labeled pretentious. In fact, they flirt with it the way some thrill seekers flirt with death. They dash right up to the line nobody wants to cross, and then dance there, nimbly, never quite going over the edge. But I swear, sometimes it’s like they’re daring me. “Go on. Tune out. Write us off. But there’s something right on the other side of this…” And this is in the opening minutes, people. The start of the evening appears to be an exercise in testing how long an audience will sit still to watch a puppet slowly cross the stage, four tiny steps at a time. We can hear the puppet’s footsteps for what seems like a good minute before we ever catch sight of it. Then it really looks like that puppet plans to walk all… the way… across… the length… of the stage… It doesn’t but… damn. Don’t get me wrong. It’s mesmerizing, for just exactly as long as it lasts. (Balls.) Then there’s the title—dot faust. (Really?) Then Faust starts speaking—in German (with overlapping English translation but… c’mon). Not to mention the phrase “I am Faust!” becomes a litany on par with “I am Spartacus!” Then the pronouncement—”A new world deserves a new Faust!” (Balls.)
But they deliver. A new Faust. And a good one. The big dazzlers here are both visual and emotional. When Mephistopheles first appears, he is one unsettling sight to behold – part insect, part scarecrow, part invalid, part giant. He’s enough to freak anyone out. After curtain call, they leave his mask out on the stage. A crew member reclaims it, but I’d like to make a plea for leaving it there til the last audience member has left because that thing is creepy, and it sticks with you. Let the devil work his mojo after the house lights come up. But the sucker punch really lands when the hedonist Faust comes face to face with his own mother (Jenna Wyse), before he was born. It’s both lovely and sad, and the emotional crosscurrents between the actors run very deep. I knew .faust had a brain, and a hell of a lot of nerve, but in that moment, it also had a heart. And it beats very loudly.
Four and a half stars: Very Highly Recommended.