Tuesday May 23rd 2017

“Johanna Faustus” review by Emily Johnson

johanna4Johanna Faustus opened May 20 at the Den Theater for a 9-day run.

Adapted by Emily Casey and Artistic Director Sean Graney, this clever retelling of the Faustus tale (from Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus) features a minimalist set and an ensemble cast who take on individual roles while others sit on the sidelines commenting and adding nuance to the main events. Freed from any busyness between scenes for set removals or costume changes, the tale moves at a swift clip through well-known vignettes—beginning with Faustus obtaining a magical book, signing away her soul in blood, and being drawn to hell as she fails to complete her mission to kill the pope.

 

Not sure which book starts all this off, really, as the cast was excited and running too fast through their lines at the start. The one-hour run time was probably the cause, though they could have taken a bit more time with some fairly lofty language so that the audience could follow better.

 

The pacing soon righted itself as Faustus, angry at the death of her parents and blaming the Church of Christianity, uses the book to call Mephistopheles. The tempest created—of books that delineate the stage being tossed around in the chaos, the voices and sounds and simple but effective lighting, and the clever additions by the ensemble—created a much fuller effect than one might expect from its parts.

 

The modernizing and funning up of the material was down to the ensemble and the tricks used to fuel excitement in the scenes as Mephistopheles (the hilariously corny Kate Carson-Groner as Satan’s number two) convinces Faust that Christianity must fall so that all the devils can be free from Hell. These include a slow-motion dance party, modern culture references and jokes aplenty.

 

Yet somehow amidst all the gimmicks, the power and nuance of the original narrative are preserved, although the rationale for Faustus to sign away her soul is just as foggy from our mindset as it is in the original.

 

When Mephistopheles can’t quite convince her of the need to kill Pope Innocent XIV, her boss Lucifer joins the party with an even deeper rationale to convince Faust to carry out her mission. This portrayal by Sasha Smith was both funny and very powerful, her easiness showing a bubbling talent.

 

The strength of this production was down to the vigorous acting (occasionally overexcited) as well as the clever production, but it really worked on the inspired adaptation strongly grounding the whole thing and shaping its world. It’s difficult to take old source material and update it without cheapening the whole thing, but here the gimmickry adds vitality to material that otherwise could be very dry.johanna2

 

The only quibble is that the femaleness of the Faustus character did little to affect the material, making it a bit of a moot point why it was done. I’m cool with that, as “stunt casting” doesn’t always have to be addressed. But it seemed a bit of an opportunity missed.

 

Details:

 

Location: The Den Theatre’s Heath Main Stage, 1329 N. Milwaukee Ave., Chicago

johannaDates: Saturday, May 21 – Sunday, May 29, 2016

Curtain Times: Fridays at 8 pm

Saturdays at 3 pm & 8 pm

Sundays at 3 pm.

Tickets Prices: Regular run: $36. Students: $15. Groups of 8 or more: $18 per person. Tickets are currently on sale at www.the-hypocrites.com.

 

To see what others are saying, visit www.theatreinchicago.com, go to Review Round-Up and click at “Johanna Faustus”

 

 

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