Deal with the devil

Goethe is one of those heavyweight writers (mostly Russian or German) who everyone admires but who no one reads. In fact, in these post-literate times, you can now get into Mensa just by being able to pronounce Goethe's name correctly. You no longer have to study Cliffs Notes on Faust, which, as recently as 1988, was a membership requirement.

Extra Virgin Performance Cooperative is therefore showing a lot of moxie by dedicating most of its 1995-'96 season to Goethe's Faust and to two other Faust-related works. Called "The Faust Project," this series of three plays, of which Faust is the first, is intended to reclaim the inherent theatricality, wit, and bawdiness of Faust, and to update the legend, making it relevant for contemporary audiences.

In a town not exactly known for its eggheads, staging a Faust-themed trilogy seems like a deliberate attempt at box-office failure, a la The Producers. There's a reason why Faust hasn't been staged in North Texas in decades, if ever. Bubba is none too fond of four-hour-long, early 19th-century German plays written in rhyming hexameter--and he may have a point.

The Faust story dates back to at least the late Middle Ages, and is generally familiar to most people--if not through Goethe's play, then through Christopher Marlowe's Elizabethan version of the German fold legend, or through The Devil and Daniel Webster, or through Damn Yankees. The basic idea is that a disgruntled individual seeking transcendent knowledge, or worldly riches, or a winning baseball team, makes a pact with the devil. The devil agrees to produce whatever the unhappy person desires--an exchange with enduring appeal--as demonstrated again by Randy Newman, who recently completed a musical inspired by the Faust legend.

In Goethe's play, Faust is a graying German intellectual who has soaked up most of man's knowledge, from science to theology, yet stills feels that something is missing. "The very thing one needs one does not know, and what we know is needless," he complains. While part of his soul longs for enlightenment, the other clings to earthly pleasures "with furious lust."

On a walk with a student, Faust encounters a black dog, which follows him back to his cramped scholar's quarters. The dog turns out to be Mephistopheles, who proposes that Faust take him on as a servant in this world in exchange for becoming Mephistopheles' servant in the next.

They shake on it, and the devil takes Faust slumming in search of some low fun. Nothing piques the old man, however, until he sees the vision of the maid Gretchen. "Get me that woman!" he snaps. With the devil's help, Faust seduces Gretchen, then abandons her when she becomes pregnant. He proceeds to carry on like a rock star, engaging in orgies and buying castles. In the end, however, the more ethereal side of Faust's personality triumphs and it's implied that he's accepted into Heaven and escapes the devil.

Though the play concerns what is sometimes a dry metaphysical struggle (especially for modern audiences who no longer believe in the devil), like any great work, Faust hits more than one note. Goethe, like Shakespeare, makes sure there's some pageantry mixed with the poetry, along with generous doses of sex and violence.

This production tries to emphasize Faust's earthier qualities without sacrificing the basic didactic core of the play, which is the running clash between Mephistopheles and Faust. Director Gretchen Sween has lopped two hours off the play's normal marathon four-hour running time by pruning the text. She's also mixed and matched translations, using part of Oxford poet David Luke's verse text and a prose version by Peter Salm. Local composer Jon Schweikhard set several of Goethe's poems to music for this production, while the tunes played before the show are taken from Newman's new Faust musical.

The set design by Kathy Windrow places the action in the "way back when" medieval Germany of Grimm's fairy tales fame, and features a painted forest backdrop, Faust's cloistered room, and Gretchen's simple country cottage.

While these choices ensure a sort of "Faust lite," director Sween probably could not have mounted Faust any other way. Unfortunately, the production necessarily suffers from a lack of epic sweep and grandeur, and fails to invoke the passion and pathos of tragedy.

What the play does offer is a flamboyant, occasionally too arch, but mostly entertaining performance by Dalton James as Mephistopheles. An actor, poet, and performance artist who has created several notable one-man shows, James preens, smirks, dances, cajoles, and crawls on his belly like a reptile in order to bring Mephistopheles, the "spirit of negation," to life.

Nicky Bailey provides an effective contrast as the innocent-as-new-bedsheets Gretchen. With her sing-song voice and wide eyes, Bailey has a Little Red Riding Hood quality that matches the fairy-tale ambiance of the play. James Venhaus and Kalin Piraro provide able support in multiple roles. Venhaus does a couple of comic turns as a wacked-out witch and as a Bill Murrayesque drunk, while Piraro brings a conniving edge to Gretchen's lubricious pal Martha.

Trey Walpole as Faust is one of the play's sticking points. Faust, like Lear or Othello, calls for both a larger-than-life presence and an actor who can bring centuries-old verse to dramatic life. It's a role that overmatches most actors, including Walpole, though he wades into it with conviction.

Sween and Extra Virgin Performance Cooperative are to be commended for bringing a seldom-seen classic to the Metroplex. Despite their best intentions, however, this is a production audiences are more likely to respect than they are to enjoy.

Faust runs through December 2 at the McKinney Avenue Contemporary. Call 941-3664.