As chamber music blares, robed figures whisper, "He had it coming." A demon, dressed like a symphony conductor, uncloaks them and they scatter to the shadows in hurried, frantic movements. The demon, Mephistopheles, later waits in the corner as John Faustus calls forth these figures to help him sell his soul to Lucifer in Faustus, produced by Lux et Umbra at the Old Marquer Theatre.
Written by Christopher Marlowe, the 16th-century play (fully titled The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus) is based on the German legend of a scholar who — via necromancy and blood oaths — bargains with the devil for great knowledge. Faustus (Matt Standley) wants to know the world's secrets — and he isn't certain if Hell exists — so he conjures the demon Mephistopheles (Evan Spigelman). After Faustus cuts his wrist and signs Lucifer's contract for his soul, the cunning and deceptive Mephistopheles must do his bidding for 24 years.
Standley plays the power-hungry Faustus with a mix of wide-eyed wonder and fatalism. At first he is careless in protecting his soul. If there is no Hell, what does he need to worry about? But as the remaining number of years using Mephistopheles' power dwindles, he becomes concerned.
Spigelman is mesmerizing. He pushes his body — screeching like a dying bird and contorting his face in weird ways. Mephistopheles is reluctant to help Faustus, but he is bound to do whatever the arrogant doctor says. Spigelman is frightening and electric; his movement and voice modulations make him seem possessed.
Directed by Jon Greene, the show is dark, but there also are humorous moments, such as when Mephistopheles gets phone calls from Lucifer and company, who sound like they came straight from a B-movie about aliens. Shawn Ramagos' set looks like a medieval dungeon, with blood splattered on the stone walls and hooks hanging from the ceiling. This dark aesthetic sets the mood and adds to the suspense. Faustus is a morality tale, but this production amplifies macabre elements to create unease, and it gets gruesome — Mephistopheles saws off an enemy's horns, which had been sprouted by magic.
An "ensemble of the damned" (Hebert Benjamin, Brian Coogan, Hannah Culwell, Kristen Gremillion and Richard Mayer) dresses like skeletons with white ribs and dark eye makeup. They perform rhythmic, dancelike movements and contort their bodies in entrancing ways, especially Benjamin. Throughout the show, each damned figure takes on different characters — posing as noblemen or one of the seven deadly sins. They frequently act in unison, and the show uses physicality and movement to tell the story.
This well-directed and excellently performed production was both scary and thought-provoking.