Faustus Might Be Doomed, But ‘Doctor Faustus’ Is a Winner

Callisto reviews the Mermaids production of Doctor Faustus.

A very special surprise awaits the audience at the end of Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus. As the unfortunate titular character is dragged across the stage to his doom, the curtain rises to reveal a full choir, bedecked in robes, providing a dramatic soundtrack to the beginning of Faustus’ eternity. This surprise –which the author takes no qualms in spoiling due to the unfortunate tardiness of her review (blame deadlines) – caps off a play that is equal parts enthralling and electric, even if it comes swathed in somewhat kitschy costuming. The leading lady’s talent plays no small part in this reaction. This Faust is firmly a one-woman show.

Faustus hooks the audience from the curtain, entirely thanks to the talents of Lexie Dykes as Faustus. Her charisma is infectious as she pores over books, slumps in armchairs, and eventually summons a demon. Her charm necessitates Callum Wardman-Browne’s Mephistopheles to remain suave and sullen for contrast – though such is perhaps appropriate for a demon. Either way, Mephistopheles remains firmly in the shadows thanks to Dykes’ magnetic performance: she even outshines the supporting casts’ individual scenes as comic relief (though they are still very funny). Faustus’ ungodly-aided antics around the courts of Europe are one of the highlights of the play, showcasing the mischievousness and childlike joy the thought of absolute power bestows upon a person. Dykes’ Faustus doesn’t seem to comprehend the consequences of their actions until the final scenes of the play – yet even then her tearful final monologue kept the audience rooted to their seats.

Her other great scenes allow the supporting cast to shine in their roles as the Seven Deadly Sins and Lucifer himself. There is a particularly excellent sequence where the Sins approach Faustus one by one: each is uniquely blocked and costumed to be as terrifying as possible. It is easily the standout moment for a cast whose other roles consist of foppish courtiers and bumbling clowns – they play this menagerie well enough, but nothing is particularly worth mentioning. Instead, their appearance as personifications of vice allow both the actors and the director to stretch their creative muscles — and that’s without mentioning Laura Bennie’s appearance as Lucifer. He and Mephistopheles make a striking pair, clad head-to-toe in blood-red gowns. Bennie, however, is more gleefully sadistic than Mephistopheles ever manages, and thus provides an attractive foil for Faustus.

It is a shame, then, that the cast spend most of their time as faceless demons, clad in paper-mâché masks that unfortunately resemble a ten-year-old’s rushed Halloween costume. The blank faces are meant to instill fear and unease, but instead they’re just eye-rollingly ridiculous. Hiding the actors’ faces does the show more harm than good, and renders the opening scene – a neatly choreographed chant – more ridiculous than anything. It is a shame, because the blocking for these demon scenes is excellent, and the actors have the potential to deliver memorable performances as the hellspawn, as the Sins scene deftly demonstrates. Nor does it help that the luminescent tape that the masks sport – an addition that may have made them striking instead of silly – is difficult to see, an issue perhaps down to lack of supply, or the actors simply not finding their light.

Yet a few unfortunate costuming choices doesn’t detract from the power of the piece. With an outstanding lead and a strong supporting cast, along with brilliant choreography, Faustus is one of the great successes of Mermaid’s 2024 spring season. It doesn’t matter that the set is basic, or some costumes are a bit laughable, when the joy, the triumph, the pride, the fall, and the grief of a man is laid so bare onstage – something remarkably human, despite the demons that swirl about. Doctor Faustus’s actors, especially its lead, render it nothing if not gripping. In a world of internet-induced thirty-second attention spans, that may be the greatest accolade a review can give.

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