This Pittsburgh-affiliated but internationally based theater troupe debuted in suitably unorthodox fashion last night at the Kelly-Strayhorn Theater.
Let's just say that this stripped-down adaption of Christopher Marlowe's 1604 classic, staged inside a bathroom-sized wooden cage, climaxed with a bare-torsoed John Fitzgerald Jay freaking out across a floor strewn with half-eaten cake, the contents of a money box and a pair of panty hose stained with spray-on antiperspirant, all to the hauntingly percussive strains of Suicide's "Dream Baby Dream."
Jay wasn't alone in the cage. He was joined at this climax by cast members Rick Kemp, Andrew Hachey, Molly Simpson and Kristin Slaysman, all of whom had spent the previous hour trading off the roles of Faustus and Mephistopheles. (For most of the play, the cage holds just one or two performers.)
The role-trading tactic is a favorite one with Dan Jemmett; the 404 Strand director also used it, for instance, in The Collected Works of Billy the Kid, an original work he and much of the same cast staged for Quantum Theatre, in 2007. In FaustUS, it worked especially well: Sometimes, inside the horizontally barred cage, two actors would instantaneously switch roles, giving the visceral impression that soul-seller Faustus was confronting himself -- or was, literally, beside himself.
The idea was amplified by the staging. The audience of 30 or so sat in a single row of chairs surrounding the rectangular cage. That meant we were watching not only the performers, but each other. And the audience and performers both occupied the theater's stage: We entered not from the lobby but from the street, via backstage. The show began when the big curtain -- the one separating us from the theater's seats -- was drawn shut, closing us in. Then the threadbare red curtains lining the cage itself were pulled back to let us see inside.
Likewise, the performers toggled mercurially between addressing their fellow actors and engaging the audience members seated just a yard away, frequently making eye contact, sometimes beseeching.
Meanwhile, the few artifacts in this existentially abstracted environment were recognizably ours: the loaf of wonder bread, and especially the pop-top soup cans lining the cage-wall shelves, whose viscuous contents supplied all the production's approximations of bodily fluids.
In an interview a couple weeks ago, Jemmett had told me that the key line of dialogue belonged to Mephistopheles. When Faustus asks the Satanic henchman how he's gotten out of Hell, Mephistopheles replies, "Why, this is hell, nor am I out of it."
Yet at some points, I wondered whether the cultural distance between Marlowe and the audience hindered us from seeing Faustus in us. The high-flown Elizabethan verse is beautiful, but hardly demotic. And a largely secular audience, I think, might not identify with the play's theocentric worldview, cast in terms of immortal souls bound for salvation or damnation.
On the other hand, the elements of Marlowe's premise are universal enough. For the promise of living "in all voluptuousness" for just 24 years, Faustus is willing to sell his eternal life. For the comfort provided by demon servants who will "resolve all ambiguities," who will "ransack the ocean" to supply him pearls, he'll get what he wanted but lose what he had.
It's an equation both basic and supple enough to apply to one's choices in personal relationships and to our treatment of nature, trading all the future for a few crumbs of temporary "voluptuousness." That the crumbs in 404 Strand's take are literal only helps emphasizes that Faustus' bargained-for triumphs are as pathetic as his losses are huge.
FaustUS continues through Sat., Sept. 12.