Gertrude Stein’s Dr. Faustus Lights the Lights began life as a libretto for an opera, never scored. It’s now a theater-piece that invites avant enthusiasts to try their hand at staging its signal interplays for voice and chorus. Robert Wilson did it, in 1992, and this week YSD directing student Lileana Blain-Cruz, with a dream cast and production team, has tackled it as her thesis piece. Fitting, since the play itself seems to articulate Stein’s thesis about theater, which is that, as dramaturg Sunder Ganglani quotes in the program, our emotions while watching it are either behind or ahead of the play we are watching. Our experience, in other words, is ours, and the play has its own experience, and from those two experiences comes the story. Of course, to say “our” experience is to suggest there is some common experience of art, but that’s exactly what Stein interrogates.
And nothing asks this question better than theater because in no other form are we, the audience, and they, the performers, together in space and time and actively so.
Dr. Faustus, as audiences of Marlowe know, made a pact with the devil—twenty-four years of supernatural power in exchange for loss of his immortal soul—but he also, due to his powers, was able to court Helen, wife of Menelaus, lover of Paris, prize of the Trojan war, and, as readers of Goethe know, seduced and abandoned a girl called both Margarete and Gretchen.
The “Faust myth” has insinuated its themes into literature and entertainment at various levels, from any hubristic use of knowledge, to any purposeful invocation of demonic powers, to various registers of “all is vanity” or “all is transcendence.” Stein’s Faustus seems to participate in the Promethean view of knowledge: like Edison, he gave us the lightbulb, but at what cost?
Fanciful enough, but Stein’s intention seems also to be a reworking of the myth to give a different status to Faustus’ paramour, here combined to form a figure called Marguerite Ida and Helena Anabel (played, often in tandem, by Adina Verson and Alexandra Trow, two actresses who also played, in tandem and separately, two of the three parts of Salome in Blain-Cruz’s Yale Cabaret version of Wilde’s play last year). Speaking broadly, one can say that this figure—whatever we may determine her to “represent”—is finally ascendant and Faustus (enacted by William DeMeritt, though voiced at times by the entire company) is eclipsed.
In other words, unlike in Goethe’s Faust, MI+HA isn’t inclined to save him, and, unlike Goethe’s or Marlowe’s version, Faustus seems fully resigned to going to hell. What the final state of MI+HA is is harder to say, denuded as she is of her grand Statue of Liberty style trappings and, for a time at least, trapped in a kind of lockstep flight-and-fight-and-dance routine with the somewhat enigmatic Man from Overseas (Seamus Mulcahy in a great coat and creepy halfmask).
All of which is to bother about plot and why bother. The strengths of this production, as must be the case for any production of this play, are in the staging, the music, the voicing. All along the way the YSD production is a winner.
The choral mouthing of lines creates aural textures—it’s fascinating to try to determine who all is speaking when lines are heard—that bring out wonderfully the epigrammic, nursery rhymey, enigmatic, incantatory, bumper-stickery, poetic, comic, repetitive quality of the text. An example of all those things in one that bit me in the ear: “What difference does it make to you if you do what you do.” This said by a Boy (Jillian Taylor) who spoke and comported himself like an androgynous escapee from a Nickelodeon TV studio.
Stein’s gift for contrapuntal verbal explorations is unmatched, and this company makes the most of it.
The music—a range of solemn to robotic to campy to martial to Felliniesque (at one of my favorite parts)—by Adrian Knight adds much to the proceedings, indeed, helps define the action, as do the vocals by Taylor, Verson, DeMeritt and others;
the varied effects with lights—neon, and bulbs, and lazers, and sparklers (Masha Tsimring, Lighting);
the impressive use of levels and grounds in the staging: a stage within a wasteland, including dirt and taxidermied forest fauna (Adam Rigg, Scenic), and two grand cast-iron stairways, one a spiral, that Country Woman with the Sickle (Hallie Cooper-Novack, the other member of the Salome trio) uses to remarkable comic effect;
the syncopated movements and deliveries by Mephisto (Chris Henry and Lupita Nyong’o, both looking suitably devilish in devilish suits—Jayoung Yoon, costumes), and by Little Boy and Girl (Trow and Cooper-Novack, wearing blonde moptops and addressing “Mr. Viper”—whether Faustus or Mephisto is not always clear—as though he were Daddy Warbucks);
and finally, in long, flowing white hair for fur, Fisher Neal as The Dog who always says Thank You, and whose inclusion in the proceedings seems key for whatever the play means to mean.
If the play is the thing the thing is to play and YSD's production plays this play all the way just a little ahead.
Getrude Stein’s Doctor Faustus Lights the Lights Directed by Lileana Blain-Cruz
Yale School of Drama October 25-29, 2011