Playwright: Christopher Marlowe
At: Side Studio, 1520 W. Jarvis
Phone: ( 773 ) 856-5318; $15
Runs through: Nov. 1
Half the battle in successfully staging a production is choosing the right play for the right company. Theater companies need to ask themselves about what makes a good fit, considering questions such as: What are our resources? What kind of space and budget do we have to work with?
Camenae Theatre Ensemble, under the direction of Sara Keely McGuire, has a lot of ambition. They've opted to stage Christopher Marlowe's classic tale of bargaining with the devil, and its tragic consequences. It's a complex story, rich in its considerations of human nature, the power of greed, and the agony of regret. Doctor Faustus, as portrayed by Marlowe, is a man with fierce intellect and voluminous knowledge. But he wants more. His interest in the black arts lead him to strike a bargain with the devil, exchanging his soul for power, more knowledge, and worldly goods. It's a story that's been told, imagined and re-imagined since Marlowe first penned it in the 1500s ( although its origins probably go back much further ) . With its layered plotting, rich characterization, and dense, metered language, Doctor Faustus would be a serious challenge for any theater company.
Which brings me back to my original thought: that of choosing the right material for the right company. While Camenae gives their all-female version of this classic their all, imaginatively using an obviously miniscule budget and extremely limited resources, they don't really succeed here. It's not so much a question of ability, or talent, or ambition, it's more a question of: can we do this? Sadly, the answer here is no. Doctor Faustus calls for its themes to be writ large; costumes, special effects, and other creative considerations loom large in satisfactorily staging this often eerie, magical piece. Staging it in the tiny Side Studio space, which has seating for maybe 15 people ( on plastic chairs ) ; its one-set limitations, and the ( again ) very limited budget sets it up for failure. It's like a park district production of Cleopatra. Camenae tries mightily to fit into a suit of clothes that's simply too big for them. They would have been better suited to demonstrate their talents with something smaller, yet equally challenging in terms of theme.
The result here is a bore. To make this relevant for modern audiences, it needs to have a grander scale. Under the tiny confines and limited scope, many of the characters ( particularly the more diabolical ones ) come off as cartoonish, or worse, camp ( as in the case of Tory Leigh's Mephistopheles, which, taken up just a hair, would be ribald parody, worthy of some serious laughter ) . Faustus himself, played by company artistic director Bernadine Ann Tippit, comes off as lackluster when he should be rivetingly magnetic. Tippet's sometimes halting, always dry line readings don't allow us to care for this tragic doctor, and this is crucial to identify with his bad end. Director McGuire tries to do something with the production, but is so constrained that the piece as whole comes off as artless, leaden, and static.
Perhaps the next time Camenae attempts something of this scale, they should strike a bargain with Lucifer.