Bargaining with the devil is a chilly yet potent business in “Faust, Part 1,” writer/co-director/thesp Mark Jackson’s free adaptation of Goethe. Arrestingly stripped-down in all aspects save its rich, elegant language, this take on the classic morality play has an intellectual and physical rigor that’s at once ironically distancing and quite inviting. Barely into its premiere run at Berkeley’s Ashby Stage, the Shotgun Players production has already been extended once, with further encroachment into the summer quite likely.
A tall, sardonic figure standing to one side before the closed curtain — actually a ceiling-high wall of metal shutter frames — Faust (Jackson) first addresses us directly in a long solo kvetch. Proclaiming all his scholarly education and fame are hollow, he grimaces, “We know nothing …. This burns in my heart.” He has devoted himself to academic pursuits that now seem empty; he’s grown old without enjoying, or suffering, raw human experience.
This discontent tacitly flows beneath his successive monologues with a worshipful assistant (Phil Lowery) and new student-acolyte (Dara Yazdani), then at last with Mephistopheles (Peter Ruocco) — though the latter does find ways to prick his interest.
The fallen angel has been drawn here by Faust’s borderline-blasphemous words toward a God he impudently feels has failed him. Announcing “I have come to chase out your boredom,” this doleful yet insinuating Satan counters his prey’s skepticism by promising “such life, such art, such beauty” as he’s never known before.
Their pact sealed, the world opens to Faust — as does the curtain at last, revealing (to the sound of Lou Reed) an abstract birch forest behind. Told he’ll now find “a Helen of Troy in just about every woman,” the scholar is instantly smitten with passing Gretchen (Blythe Foster). This humble peasant maiden has lost her father to the plague, a brother (Yazdani) to the military and a mother (Zehra Berkman, her every wheelchair move accompanied by shrill violin squawks) to sour, anxiously clinging infirmity.
Despite all best intentions, their clandestine passion is fated to the usual girl-in-trouble scenario, with disgrace, madness and worse to follow. That progress is observed (and occasionally prodded forward) by Mephistopheles, bent on proving Faust no more elevated a despoiler of innocence — or of his own lofty “honor” — than any other man.
It’s to the great credit of Jackson, fellow cast members and co-helmer Kevin Clarke that the play’s first 40 minutes — in which near-stationary thesps scarcely exhaust even the sliver of stagespace they’re allotted — nonetheless have viewers hanging on every nuance.
Even afterward, there’s a stylized economy at work that owes a debt to various schools of 20th century European avant-garde theater; the exacting movement becomes pretentious only during a couple de facto interpretive dance interludes. This magnifying-glass presentation, in which small detail looms extra-large, also serves to focus attention on Jackson’s text. His occasionally rhymed and metered language is full to bursting.
Within their formalist framework the actors do very striking work, creating figures both archetypal and emotionally immediate. Matt Stines’ witty sound design is notable among the sharp design contribs.
Goethe’s play about a man who makes a deal with the devil gets an update in Mark Jackson’s freely adapted ‘Faust, Part I.’