If Anne Rice and Helmut Newton collaborated on a play for a German cabaret, their output would resemble Tal-Kasia Productions' Dr. Faustus, the inaugural show of the new film and theater company. Young founders Tal Harris and Kasia Kowalczyk (whose first names give the group its moniker) primarily intend to make films, but also plan to stage a single play each year, and Dr. Faustus affirms their fascination with theatricality.
Tal-Kasia's staging of Christopher Marlowe's Dr. Faustus takes delight in all the accoutrements of live theater, featuring baroque sets, outlandish costumes, sinister puppets and live music. With assistance from Sensurround Stagings, which "presents" the Tal-Kasia production, Dr. Faustus turns 7 Stages' Back Stage into an old-fashioned playhouse complete with red curtain.
Paradoxically, the drama of Dr. Faustus is the least dramatic aspect of the show. Co-directors Harris and Kowalczyk have vision to spare but have difficulties getting emotionally engaged with Marlowe's timeless yet problematic tale of how to sell your soul to the devil.
Frustrated scholar John Faustus (played by actress Aileen Loy) ruminates over the limitations of the learning he can find through books and begins dabbling in black magic. Despite the warnings of his friend Wagner (Nathan Mobley), he conjures Lucifer's right-hand demon Mephistopheles, whom Tal Harris plays as a top-hatted major domo. The devil offers Faustus 24 years of unlimited pleasure and power in exchange for his soul.
The conjurer and the demon have the play's only intriguing relationship, and not only do they verbally match wits, Loy and Harris give elements of a physical seduction to Faustus' temptation, although Harris doesn't invest Mephistopheles with the wicked pleasure you might expect in the role. The text takes great pains to explain and externalize Faustus' internal struggles. The stage is flanked by good and evil angels (Michelle McCullough and Rachael Williams) who urge Faustus to follow their divergent paths. They're most memorable for their huge hoop skirts that make them look like chess pieces, while Sarah Falkenburg, as the flirtatious chorus, wears feathers, a bowler hat and a black bustier.
Violinist Paul Mercer lends mood to the action, his strains reminiscent of "Danse Macabre," and he memorably scrapes his violin as Faustus cuts himself to sign his name in blood. Early in the show Mephistopheles entertains Faustus with a pageant of the seven deadly sins, represented by amusingly designed puppets: Covetousness mentions the gold in its chest, and its torso opens to reveal a hidden treasure.
But for all of the exciting stuff Tal-Kasia puts on display, it still has to contend with Marlowe's work itself, which always strikes me as better poetry than a play. The premise and early acts are entirely engrossing -- and then the story goes nowhere. With the world at his feet, Faustus does almost nothing of interest, using his magical powers to play pranks on the Pope and swindle a stable boy, although, granted, he does get to bed down Helen of Troy (Falkenburg).
Throaty-voiced, loose-limbed Aileen Loy makes a fascinatingly lusty Faustus, and when the actress says the line, "Sweet Analytics, tis thou has ravished me!" it's as though Faustus is talking about more than just reading too much. In the last hour before the devil takes his due, Loy gives the role a fitting desperation, trying to repent but being physically unable to clasp hands in prayer.
Loy's sensual performance may be the most memorable stage effect of Tal-Kasia's Dr. Faustus. Though the rest of the youthful ensemble doesn't rise above the play's eccentric aspects, Tal-Kasia proves to be a promising new company with plentiful resources, and it'll be interesting to see what devil or angel inspires them next.