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CREATIVELY UNIQUE: UNCW theatre presents a modern update on 16th century ‘Dr. Faustus’

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In many ways, this first run of Marino and Varnam’s “Dr. Faustus” seems more of a workshop of entirely new material rather than a revival of a classic play. It is very creative and experimental.

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Director Christopher Marino of UNCW’s theatre department tackles a new take on Christopher Marlowe’s 16th century “Dr. Faustus.” For the production, Marino collaborated with local composer Adrian Varnam to set Marlowe’s blank-verse drama to music.

Marino opens the evening with a curtain speech and notes, for the most part, UNCW doesn’t do curtain speeches. However, his rendition of “Dr. Faustus” really warrants a bit of context. He’s right; the experimental nature of the production—which meshes Elizabethan and modern theatre—is unusual. Wilmington’s audiences are seeing a particular script and score for the first time on stage.

Scenic designer Randall Enlow has taken the unique blending as a guiding principal. The traditional balcony for the orchestra found in Elizabethan and Jacobian theatre is paired with a raked center platform. Farther forward—and sometimes masking the elements—are a series of sliding screens filled with projected images, and for a pivotal scene, a shadow play. Extreme stage right we see Dr. Faustus’ desk piled with books, a skull and the tools of his trade as a philosopher.  It is clear we are in a world of mystery, shadow and mysticism.

The show opens with a prologue by the prophet (Darien Faison); he is essentially the chorus of the production. Think of Derek Jacobi’s role in Branagh’s “Henry V” similar to what Faison is tasked with: Explain the exposition to the audience in a compelling and comprehensible way.

Unlike Jacobi, he has to do so while singing a solo before a live audience.
We meet Dr. Faustus (Tommy Goodwin), a young man whose thirst and greed exceed the bounds of the physical world. Let’s say he has fallen in with a bad crowd.  First he’s got Valdes (Savannah Dougherty) and Cornelius (Trevor Tackett), two local occult practitioners tempting him with the possibilities of what he can achieve with magic. Then there are two angels sitting on his shoulders: good angel (Madeline Boltinghouse) and bad (Naswana Moon)—both of whom argue for his very soul. Valdes and Cornelius pull off some remarkable work with German accents in singing and storytelling. They get a lot of laughs for their portrayal of German performance artists—kind of like more serious and satanic versions of Mike Myers and Dana Carvey’s Sprockets from “Saturday Night Live.”

When Faustus summons Mephistopheles (Sarah Kilgore), it gets really interesting. He is faced with a legitimate crossing of the rubicon. Mephistopheles demands he sign over his soul to Lucifer (Michael Pipicella) on a scroll written in his own blood. With the enticement of Kilgore’s Mephistopheles, Goodwin’s Faustus transforms. He seems to need someone to play off of—the difference between his monologues and interaction with her are like night and day.

Kilgore is tempting, taunting and demanding. The possibility of willingly following her into eternal damnation is completely believable—and Goodwin goes in spite of numerous warnings to the contrary.

Pipicella’s Lucifer is a captivating blend of Jerry Lee Lewis and Jimmy Swaggart at the height of both of their popularity. It’s a boogie-woogie televangelist, who will steal your soul and charm you to hell. Between he and Kilgore, there needs to be a warning sign of some kind to unsuspecting souls.

Marino has an amazing sense for successful visual theatre—so much so the choices for who the Seven Deadly Sins (Bailey Watkins, Josh Browner, John Williams, Maddie Brien, Nick Raeff, Zachary Beehler, Jack Towner) appear to be is quite a poignant choice for our day and age. Audiences who saw Marino’s rendition of “Measure for Measure” as a protest against HB2 will see his visual choice continues in using theatre as a form of statement and protest. It is an interesting update and really does put the presence of the sins in our daily lives in clear context. How quickly and easily can we slide into each of these mistakes?

On that note, in the second half, when Sean Owens’ Pretender appears to engage with his fellow plotters, what we get visually is unmistakable. Marino and costumer Mark Sorensen paint a picture we have all seen many times in the last year and it is visceral. Owens gives a frightening rendition to clearly show he is committed to his course of action—and how easily it is for one to fall into. What Marino succeeds in communicating with the scenes is incredible in its detail and visual power.

UNCW isn’t primarily a musical theatre program, and to that end, this is far outside of the experience for many students who are trying something new for the first time. Most of them are singing solos. Moreover, they are singing new music—a challenge for all performers to learn. Varnam has set a lot of the text directly to music, so it doesn’t have the structure an individually written song does, with lyrics created specifically for a certain piece of music. The lyrics are part of a larger text, and so it makes the storytelling elements a different challenge than a traditional musical.

In fact, audiences should not approach the show expecting a Kander and Ebb or Rodgers and Hammerstein experience, with soaring voices like powerhouses Kendra Goering-Garrett or Heather Setzler give on the local scene. This is a different ball of wax entirely. Adrian Varnam scored the entire show so there is incidental music, there are sound effects produced by the band, and then there are the songs. Varnam incorporates a lot of musical elements of the 16th and 17th centuries but he doesn’t make the entire show sound like “Greensleeves” (thankfully). It is raucous, loud and intense. Valdes and Cornelius sound like German synth pop. No doubt the music manifests a lot of the characters’ struggles.

In many ways, this first run of Marino and Varnam’s “Dr. Faustus” seems more of a workshop of entirely new material rather than a revival of a classic play. It is very creative and experimental.

Dr. Faustus
Feb. 22-25; 8 p.m. or Sun., 2 p.m.
Mainstage Theatre in UNCW’s Cultural Arts Building
601 S. College Rd.
Tickets: $6-$15

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