Arts & Entertainment:

Actors Ensemble of Berkeley Stages ‘Dr. Faustus’

By Ken Bullock
Thursday October 30, 2008
With an unusual—and unusually good—idea for a community theater Halloween show, Actors Ensemble of Berkeley’s staging a lively production of Christopher Marlowe’s Elizabethan masterpiece, Doctor Faustus, in a cranked up, vaudevillized version, directed by Jeremy Cole and produced by Jennifer Rice at Live Oak Theatre, that plays like ‘Faustus, Hellzapoppin’.

Seldom has selling one’s soul to the devil for magical knowledge and adventure been rendered onstage with such a spirit of fun.

There’s plenty of vernacular comedy in the late 16th century original, too, exploited to the hilt by Cole & Co. as, among other things, street buddies Robin and Dick (Matt Gunnison and Tavis Kammet) yuk it up, making schooners of sack fly through the air after Robin filches one of the not-so-good Doctor’s magic tomes, much to the amazement of a lady Vintner (Meira Perelstein). They inadvertantly summon up a crabby Mephistopheles (Stanley Spenger), brought all the way back from soulcatching in Constantinople for childsplay—and the frightened “children” scatter.

Harold Pierce is a brash, hellbent-for-leather Faustus. With a drolly melancholic Spenger excellently impish as his infernal correspondent, the rest of the kaleidoscopic dramatis personae are well rendered by an ensemble of eight which also does duty as chorus, including April Bennett and James Tantum. Particularly good are Theresa Adams, as everyone from the Deadly Sin of Pride to the Holy Roman Emperor to an illusory horse of straw, and Kerry Godjohnson as both Lechery and the Doctor’s Good Angel’s puppeteer, as well as multitudes more.

They stand out, in part, for their mellifluous voices, delivering Marlowe’s marvellous verse with style and alacrity. Pierce, who is often fine in his presence and movements, is a bit too brash with Faustus’ lines, rushing them instead of letting the words work the magic. Popple and Spenger—in particular the devilish Stan—also excel in delivery.

Most contemporary productions of Marlowe confound his plays with the dregs of Shakespeare festival-itis, either too pious with the text or throwing the kitchen sink at it. Marlowe was a funny mix of classicist and provocateur. His “real-life” job was, in fact, an agent provocateur, to smoke out Catholics and other suspected dissidents to the British Crown. To this day, no-one really knows where Marlowe himself stood, ideologically, his violent end in a brawl at 29 very probably his handlers offing their loose cannon undercover man.

What Marlowe had in common with his rather anticlassical admirer Shakespeare was Mannerism, virtuoso tricks of perspective and ambiguity, that could, as Cole mentions in his notes, “embrace ... inconsistencies and contradictions.” Cole & Co. “exaggerate them at times” with the stuff of carnival sideshows, shadowplay, puppetry and stage magic.

But, dressed up by Maria Graham’s costumery on Norm De Veyra’s spare set lit by Cole with sound by Karen Oakley and Natasha Gruber, the gorgeous lines ring true: “I will wound Achilles in the heel/And return to Helen for a kiss.”

Unlike Goethe’s later magisterial play, Marlowe’s Faustus is dragged off to perdition by a squad of devils—who, unmasked, take a bow as the valiant ensemble, joined by Mephisto and the Doctor. You can’t say he didn’t ask for it. But it’s Mephistopheles whose horns all the women stroke at the reception afterwards.


Live Oak Theatre, 1301 Shattuck Ave

Fri.-Sat. 8 pm, extra showing Nov. 20.

through Nov. 22.