François Truffaut once said of Hitchcock’s movies, “The love scenes were filmed like murder scenes, and the murder scenes like love scenes.” The same could be done with comedy and tragedy in the theater; it would be nice to see Twelfth Night, considering all its darker elements, staged as a tragedy and to see Hamlet, loaded with all that dramatic irony, staged as a comedy. And at first, John Kurzynowski’s Doctor Faustus seems to effectively follow this idea; the eponymous character (played by Matt Carr) is presented as an arrogant self-aggrandizer, someone whose ambitions far outreach his intellect—every time he mispronounces “Württemberg,” for example, his assistant Wagner (Tina Shepard) quickly responds, “Vürttemberg.” There is also an endearing hand-made quality to the production, with angels’ detached wings being flapped by actors standing behind them, recalling the self-conscious theatricality of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America.
But as the play progresses, this somewhat silly approach becomes distracting. Faustus, after all, undergoes some profound religious doubts, and the power of some of Marlowe’s earlier, beautiful scenes are punctuated and undermined by flat humor. Consistently, Mr. Kurzynowski will employ jokes at the expense of a tonally cohesive whole—at various points, he scores his scenes with Wagner, gumshoe jazz, and lounge blues, seemingly for no reason other than a laugh. By the time one actor’s dreadlocks are used as a stand-in for fire, I was almost ready to give up entirely on the show.
And then something truly unexpected happened: the last moments of the play reached a shocking sublimity. Beginning with Faust’s “Was this the face that launched a thousand ships,” the silliness was dropped and a quiet filled the theater. Gently scored by Arvo Pärt’s “Spiegel im Spiegel,” Mr. Carr’s delivery sent chills up my spine. From the beginning, the casting of Mephistopheles (Celeste Arias) as a woman seemed like a nice touch, but at the end the choice was gorgeously justified, as she stands before Faustus as the image of Helen of Troy. When he finishes his famous monologue, she turns to face the audience, tears streaming down her eyes. The twenty-four years they have spent together have been smoke and mirrors—she is no more Helen of Troy than he is a great scientist who will be remembered for his conjuring.
The earlier scenes in which Mephistopheles virtually begs Faustus not to swear himself to Lucifer—rather odd as written—come into focus. There is a love between the two of them, probably undetected by the self-absorbed Faust. In the play’s final moments, he confesses his sins to his colleagues and reflects on his inevitable damnation—“Ah, the half hour is past! / ‘Twill all be passed anon!”—but they ignore him, going through stacks of their papers and dropping them onto the floor; he has become irrelevant before his own death. The last sound we hear—after the blackout—is the flutter of pages. Spectacular. The potential and the failure of this play were infuriating.