A Deal with the Devil: “Dr. Faustus Lights the Lights” Bargains Way into CFA
•Gertude Stein’s avant-garde play, “Dr. Faustus Lights the Lights,” is a libretto originally intended for an opera that was never written.
•The Theater Department’s production of said stunted libretto goes up this weekend in the CFA Theater.
•That’s why all those people bleached their hair in funny patterns.
•The CFA Theater is kind of hard to find. Fellow freshmen, take heed.
There will be puppets.
Hairstyles, puppetry, and my sense of direction aside, this weekend’s production of “Dr. Faustus Lights the Lights” should prove an intellectually rewarding endeavor in experimental theater for those brave enough to attend. By “intellectually rewarding,” I mean, “I didn’t get it.”
Chair of the Theater Department Cláudia Tatinge Nascimento, who directs the play, helped elucidate the meaning of this dense text.
“Stein was looking for a rupture with modern dramatic conventions,” Nascimento explained. “She’s working with the free flow of association to compose a story that is less based on character psychology or cause consequence and more on a collection of past memories and cultural frames.”
The format of “Faustus” is unlike anything that might be considered a conventional narrative. The text of the play is more akin to stream-of-consciousness writing or a prose poem than a dialogue. For example, actor Eli Timm ’13 plays a distressed Dr. Faustus at the beginning of the show, rambling almost incomprehensibly. Such existential tidbits as “How do I know that I have a soul to sell?” and “Will it be it? It is it” are repeated again and again throughout the play.
“The text is very much a dance of repetition,” Nascimento said.
Textual ambiguity is amplified by a rejection of the concept of self. This play blurs every line between characters there is to blur, and I found myself evaluating the constructed nature of my sense of self and of others within the confines of my limited human consciousness. Stein addresses the multiplicity of the human persona with the character “Marguerite Ida and Helena Annabel,” who is at once one person and two. Due to the nonrealistic nature of the text, audience members will need to leave their preconceptions of reality at the door. In other words: this is some next-level shit.
“It needs to escape a realistic frame because you can’t be the object and the subject at the same time,” said Nascimento of the play’s meta-physicality. “To me, the play takes place in her head. It’s almost as if there is no character. All of them are Stein.”
The essential premise of “Faust” is this: Dr. Faustus makes a deal with Mephisto in which he exchanges his soul for unlimited knowledge. Stein updates this German legend by equating unlimited knowledge with white electric light, thus relating man’s competing inner good and evil to a struggle with technology. Dr. Faustus’s conflict with “Marguerite Ida and Helena Annabel” brings additional themes of gender into the mix. For any of you who have recently invented electricity, sold your soul to the devil, or even listened to a little Charlie Daniels Band, this should be right up your alley.
The actors in “Faustus” embody the text through various artistic disciplines, using speech, dance, movement, and music to create a beautiful multimedia composition. Nascimento’s direction is appropriately unconventional. Multiple actors play the same role, often at the same time.
“Faustus” is at once a theatrical production and a display of light and sound. Screen projections and experimental lighting designed by an expert team are set to a chilling musical score provided by Demetrio Castellucci (of stage company Dewey Dell, for anyone who saw their performance here last semester).
When asked if her direction of “Dr. Faustus” had been influenced by her previous work studying intercultural borders in theatre, Nascimento stressed that the concept of a “foreigner” is a universal principle beyond nationality or ethnicity. As individuals restrained by our sense of self, we automatically characterize all others as foreigners. “Faustus” challenges this concept by demanding that actors portray both the self and the other at the same time.
“When you think about what theater is for other cultures, you encounter performance forms that are not the western canon’s understanding of realism,” Nascimento said. “It’s not a relationship of ‘us and them’ or ‘one and the other,’ but of being the outsider and being in a relationship with outsiders.”
Nascimento was especially excited to divulge her reason for choosing “Faustus.”
“I decided to do the play because of the power outage last fall,” she said.
In this case, art does appear to imitate life.
If any part of this dense preview piqued your interest, come to the CFA Theater at 8 p.m. this Thursday through Saturday for a thought-provoking hour and a half of modernist drama. If you’re looking to have your mind blown by a deluge of visual and auditory stimulation, immerse yourself in “Faustus” this weekend.