The Doctor is in

Actors Ensemble of Berkeley Impresses With Unique Production Of 'Doctor Faustus'

Salgu Wissmath/Staff

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The Doctor Is In
"Doctor Faustus" at the Live Oak Theater

Exploring humanity's extremes, "Doctor Faustus" is often regarded as the pinnacle work of Shakespeare's contemporary and rival Christopher Marlowe. It focuses on the consequences of seeking knowledge beyond mortal means. Doctor Faustus (Harold Pierce) trades in books of the natural world for books on magic, selling his soul to the devil after encountering the daemonic Mephistopheles (Stanley Spenger). Faustus exhibits moments of heroic authority, but his failure to recognize humanity's limitations ultimately results in damnation.

Acclaimed director Jeremy Cole peppers the production with surprising elements that at first are out of place but eventually culminate into a cohesive and imaginative piece. Rather than being completely true to Marlowe's period, Cole draws from both Marlowe's 1604 and 1616 texts. He also combines modern Western elements with traditional Asian practices.

Upon entering, contemporary music like Charlie Daniels' "The Devil Went Down to Georgia" and Belinda Carlisle's "Heaven Is a Place on Earth" fill the house, prepping the audience for the religious conflicts yet to come. The combination of the script and clever influences effectively universalizes the play's conflict of transitioning to the dawning Renaissance from the Middle Ages. Cole's concept jars the audience throughout the production with contrasting spectacle and never fails to captivate.

As soon as the songs from American pop culture come to a halt, the Asian inspiration is felt as the curtains part to reveal a simple palette of black, red, gray and white, systematically arranged to create balance onstage. Black columns, lined with white tea candles, provide an ambient earthly glow that speaks of ritual. Puppets and masks, which frequently pervade Asian theatrics, are also played with. At times, multiple puppeteers manipulate single puppets, which is perhaps a nod to Japanese Bunraku. The entire cast is onstage for nearly the whole show, which could make Ensemble character changes difficult. However, all is achieved at showtime due to efficient use of rehearsal blocks that double as the Ensemble's seating and stowage for their props, and, most importantly, their impressive ensemble ethic.

The Ensemble epitomizes the classic Grecian chorus that works as a single operating unit. They play together and off one another, nimbly shifting between absolute uniformity to speaking in turns as individuals. Even here the rest of the Ensemble supports them with well-oiled reactions and impeccable timing.

Lead characters have their moments to shine as well; Harold Pierce, in the role of Faustus, effectively drags the audience along his emotional rise and fall, reflecting the worst and best in each of us. At the moment of Faustus' realization of his doom, his thunderous "I repent!" abruptly hushes the house, tangible desperation permeating the atmosphere. The cast takes liberties in their readings of the script, manipulating it to achieve some great humor that does not necessarily mesh with what was perhaps Marlowe's original intent. Faithful reading or no, it makes for good entertainment.

The play explores hedonistic vices and caters to our basest human desires. It stimulates the physical senses with the visions of the director and designers as well as clean performances from the cast. Marlowe's original script also stimulates intellectual drive. Together, they make for an engaging evening that haunts long after Doctor Faustus is swept off stage by an army of devils.

Ask Sara what Japanese Bunraku is at