REVIEWSTheatre Reviews

Johanna Faustus

Co-Adapted by Emily Casey and Sean Graney

From Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus

Produced by The Hypocrites

Playing at The Den Theatre, Chicago.

“Faustus was doomed, doomed!”

Over the past few years, The Hypocrites’ artistic director Sean Graney has produced a few Shakespeare adaptations that were only an hour long and were designed by their ensembles. But while those productions ran for the standard six weeks, his new adaptation with Emily Casey of Christopher Marlowe’s The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus is playing for a very limited engagement. Perhaps it’s being workshopped for another production later on. If so, it needs to be rethought in every aspect. While the low production quality is expected and part of the fun (I guess), and there are a few funny moments early on, the play doesn’t make sense, is clumsy in its commentary, and hardly related to Marlowe’s specific version of the Faust legend.

Dana Omar and Breon Arzell. Photos by Evan Hanover.

In this modern-day adaptation, Dr. Faustus (Dana Omar) is a female professor who unsuccessfully attempts to persuade her book club that studying St. Augustine would be fun and productive. Her parents were killed in a terrorist attack by Christian radicals, and she thinks studying Christian theology is important, since Christianity is apparently a minority and mostly foreign religion in this world. The club politely offers their condolences, but only one stranger (Sasha Smith) shows interest. She has a magic book which can destroy religion, but not knowing Latin, requires Faustus’s help to use it. Faustus summons the demon Mephistopheles (Kate Carson-Groner), who persuades her to make her famous bargain in hope of feeing her father from Hell. The key to destroying Christianity, and eventually all religion, the demons tell Faustus, is to slay Pope Innocent XIV (Breon Arzell) before he can perform his annual human sacrifice.

I think we’re meant to believe that either the pope’s ring or the ritual has some sort of magical power which aids the Catholic Church. But why sabotaging that would destroy his institution or ideology, let alone any other religious organization, is never explained. It’s not like he would be the first pope to be assassinated. The Roman Empire killed a dozen popes and Christianity survived, and the papacy in the ninth and tenth centuries was constantly embroiled in deadly local Roman intrigues. Furthermore, when magical circumstances are so removed from reality, it’s hard to create any kind of real-world applicability for the characters’ ethical dilemmas. The demons struggle to explain why, if the pope is evil and so are they, they want him dead. Their answers are unconvincing and ultimately irrelevant, and real contemporary terrorists have neither a sorcerer not a papal figure they depend upon.

Lauren Vogel, Sasha Smith, Dana Omar, Whitney Dottery and Breon Arzell.

The adaptation contains a few quotes from Marlowe’s script, but is a very different story. That’s not bad in itself; it might be interesting to explore what Faustus would do if s/he was determined to actually change the world instead of just ripping off people by selling them holographic horses or messing with the pope’s food. But to transform Dr. Faustus from the most venal of all narcissistic academics into an ideologue requires her to display a lot more agency, and in this version, she’s constantly pressured and cajoled by Mephistopheles, instead of the other way around. Also, despite being proclaimed to be a great religious scholar, she responds to pro and anti-religious arguments with the astonishment of a fourteen-year old refugee from a Mormon polygamist compound. The adaptors badly need to figure out whether they’re taking this story seriously or not, because the pivot they’re attempting in the middle, when the cast stops making humorous choral music and a soundtrack takes over the ambience, doesn’t work.

Not Recommended

Jacob Davis

[email protected]

Reviewed May 20, 2016

For more information, see Johanna Faustus’s page on Theatre in Chicago.

Playing at The Den’s Heath Main Stage, 1329 N Milwaukee Ave, Chicago. Tickets are $36, with discounts for students and groups; to order, visit Performances are Friday at 8:00 pm, Saturday at 3:00 pm and 8:00 pm, and Sunday at 3:00 pm. Running time is one hour.