Commencement season is an ideal time for a production of Christopher Marlowe's Dr. Faustus. With all these diplomas flying about, surely there must be undergraduates who wouldn't have minded trading in their souls to hasten some officialized knowledge -- even if they don't end up with lore about the "motions and dispositions" of the planets or a recipe book for stirring up helpful demons.
In Echo Theatre Company's devilishly spirited production of this Elizabethan melodrama, director Eric J. Little has combined the 1604 and 1616 versions and cast a woman as "Joan" Faustus. The result is enjoyable and fast-moving, if occasionally underpaced, but well worth a look. In case you need reminding, Faustus is an ambitious academic at Wittenberg as laureled as anyone in that famous university town. Yet the more he knows, the more he realizes his knowledge is finite. He can't raise the dead or confer everlasting life. But he does have enough astrological lore to know the best time to summon devils, and when Mephistopheles appears, Faustus, like any good don, has plenty of questions. "How comes it, then, that thou art out of hell?" he asks. Mephistopheles' stunning answer -- "Why, this is hell, nor am I out of it" -- anticipates existentialism by some 350 years.
Of course we all know how the story ends, but what's interesting is what Faustus does with his hard-won abilities and why salvation is beyond his reach. Among his exploits are teasing the pope while invisible (remember how new Protestantism was in this era) and conjuring up Helen of Troy (Marlowe coined the phrase "the face that launched a thousand ships"). He meets the seven deadly sins, and though Mephistopheles is the main demon (Faustus' Virgil, as it were), Beelzebub and Lucifer make cameo appearances. Irresistible stuff, apparently, for a young troupe like Echo, who've staged the show in the neoclassical lobby of the Midtown Arts Center. Columns surround a central playing area, which is set off with flickering votive candles. The audience faces a twin staircase that flanks double doors. It's as sparse as the original Globe Theatre, one suspects, with even a modest skylight providing added illumination early on. The one caveat is that such an empty, hard-walled space has a little too much echo for Echo, and few of these players understand the breathing and articulation needed for their words to be heard. Marlowe may have had a modern sensibility, but he was Elizabethan and he liked an ornate turn of phrase.
Happily, Amy Brixey, as Faustus, embodies the adamantine ambition, though real passion is missing from this rendering, which tends to run a touch shrill toward the close. She's assisted by Ben Grimes, a smirky Mephistopheles who shows exasperation winningly, and smart cameos by Danyel Read as Wagner, Kevin Kirby as Gluttony (with a case of indigestion) and the director himself as a lounge-lizardly Lucifer. Costumed in a combination of modern dress (Gap-style prep uniforms for the students at Wittenberg, hooded cloaks and rave-schmattes for the demons), with strobe and occasional groovy drum track, this Faustus shows imagination on a budget -- and enough demons to bring in the crowds, should Echo consider reprising the production for the lucrative Halloween audience.