Photo by Alberto Romero
Though it usually serves up a light Shakespearian comedy in spring, the Long Beach Shakespeare Company (LBSC) is currently offering the tragic Doctor Faustus– a play by Shakespeare’s contemporary Christopher Marlowe– which asks, “What is the price of power?” But fear not– under the magical direction of Ken Knight, this production teases out every opportunity for humor as it delves deep into the darkness of a man paying that price with his very soul.
Replete with black-feathered demons and dark arts, Doctor Faustus is a fitting choice for LBSC’s current “season of villains.” The fiery gates of Hell are literally flung open on stage to allow the title character to make a pact with Lucifer the devil– 24 years of fame, virility and supernatural abilities in exchange for an eternity of torment.
The potential for cheesiness in this scenario is high. However, LBSC’s production is intense and engaging from beginning to end due to brilliant casting and excellent staging, including hypnotic choreography, affecting music and vivid lighting. Even a severed head– though clearly not real (sorry)– is delightfully humorous because the cast “owns” and works with its fakeness.
Knight also uses the space of the intimate stage exceptionally well, creating a dynamic, sometimes almost 3D effect, with characters in constant motion in both the foregrounds and backgrounds of scenes. And the actors under his direction are uniformly brilliant in their roles.
Brando Cutts, who is also LBSC’s artistic director, excels as the ambitious yet angst-filled Faustus. With clear emphasis and natural rhythm, Cutts expresses his character’s desire for demonic power along with the trepidation of turning from divinity. We sympathize with Faustus, not knowing which of the two literal angels– a steely bad one dressed in red (Sarah Hoeven) or a sweet good one in white (Amy Paloma Welch)– he will heed.
Mephistopheles– Lucifer’s representative sent to negotiate with Faustus– is normally male but here cast as female in a genius move, especially with Demitra Sealy playing the part with intelligent verve, childish irreverence and just the right amount of red-lipped evilness. Sexual tension between Faustus and Mephistopheles is heightened as a result, making their relationship more interesting as it inflects on the latter’s servitude and petty jealousies.
And though these two could carry the play by themselves, Pablo Milla adds a level of comic virtuosity rarely seen on this stage as both Faustus’s servant Wagner and the German emperor whom Faustus entertains by raising dead people. Between unabashed facial and physical flourishes and well-timed, bone-dry delivery, Milla steals all his scenes.
Adding to the physical comedy are Eliza Blair as the flea-ridden boy Robin, who steals Faustus’s spell book with ultra-covert moves, and Ketty Citerrio as the sleepy, easily beguiled Pope tormented by Mephistopheles’s and Faustus’s tricks.
Five additional talented cast members similarly support the story through their multiple roles, especially Eduardo Mora as both the slow-witted servant Ralph and monkish narrator who advises Faustus to turn back to God. These cast members are also impressively foreboding as bird-like demons with red eyes who periodically emerge from Hell under the sway of Faustus and Mephistopheles.
This surprisingly intricate production of Doctor Faustus delights and astounds with a talented cast and crew who evoke both its latent humor and emotional depth. Faustus takes the shortcut that we would like to, Knight notes– from painstaking work to instant gratification and fame– making his soul’s plight all too familiar.
Doctor Faustus continues at the Helen Borgers Theatre, 4250 Atlantic Ave., through June 15, with shows Fridays (except June 7) and Saturdays at 8pm, and Sundays at 2pm. Ticket prices are $12.50 to $22.50. For tickets and information, call (562) 997-1494 or visit LBShakespeare.org.