Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Doctor Faustus by Christopher Marlowe, Last Act Theatre Company, October 12 - 28

AustinLiveTheatre reviewDoctor Faustus Marlowe Last Act Theatre Company

by Michael Meigs

Faustus, why do you torment me so? This production of the work of the mercurial Christopher Marlowe, an exact contemporary of Shakespeare, stabbed to death in a tavern at the age of 29, held me at an uneasy distance despite its robust verse and stark dilemma.

Austin's Last Act Theatre Company, just over a year old, demonstrates its art and vaunting ambition in daring to take on this text. Their productions for love of the art have been low-budget stagings in a succession of found locales around town. Doctor Faustus is presented, appropriately enough, behind a tavern -- the Pour House on Burnett Road -- in an edifice in stone that must have been used as a garage, judging from the stout girders, chains and decommissioned hoist overhead. Lengths of black curtain mask the corners. The audience is seated in the depth of the room and the principal entrances are through the same wide doorway that gave spectators access to the space. Props are few and simple; director Kevin Gates relies on his cast of 13 to create this work in the style that it would have been done in a tavern courtyard or a church portico.

Doctor Faustus Christopher Marlowe Last Act Theatre Austin
Karen Alvarado, Ben McLemore (image: Jim McKay)

In theme and presentation Doctor Faustus is directly in the tradition of the medieval mystery plays. Few texts of them are extant. Those works may have been largely improvised, but both the French and English manuscripts that remain confirm the traditions of staging Bible pageants to communicate to the people the stories mostly sealed up in the impenetrable Latin of Jerome's Vulgate. The struggle to translate the Bible into vernacular languages didn't really begin until the mid-1500's. 

Marlowe wrote this text, his second drama, in about 1588 (before Shakespeare had produced anything he could put his name to). It was probably based upon a German text of about that date, registered in English translation only in 1592. To complicate matters further, Marlowe's work exists in two variants, the first printed in 1604 and the second printed in 1616. Theatre entrepreneur Philip Henslowe recorded in his account book for 1602 that he had paid two dramatists for additional scenes to be added to Doctor Faustus. The drama continued to be produced up until 1642, shortly before Cromwell and the Puritans closed the theatres.

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