“Why this is hell, nor am I out of it.”
“To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric. “
by Jeff Grygny
Christopher Marlowe was aiming to create a blockbuster when he adapted the German legend of Faust for the Elizabethan stage. He brought classical allusions for the educated set, dirty jokes and slapstick for the masses, and the horripilating thrill of demonology, slathered in poetry and plenteous piety to appease the skittish churchmen. The play has been produced in countless ways (a Milwaukee Rep production decades ago was based for some reason on Eskimo imagery). But no one to my knowledge has set it in Nazi Germany, inspired by Thomas Mann’s novel of the era and Visconti’s famous film of fascist society The Damned. No one, that is, but Off the Wall Theatre’s Dale Gutzman, Milwaukee’s homegrown master bricoleur. On his shoebox stage, with a cast of dedicated volunteers, Gutzman creates a pocket cosmos, with its own internal grammar and a vocabulary of actions, music, and images. Imagine what he’d do with the resources of, say, the Rep. And yet his independence frees him to offer fare that would never make it to the mainstream stage in this city. In his hands The Tragic History of Doctor Faustus becomes an edgy, transgressive freak show; as potent as absinthe on the rocks with a psychedelic mushroom garnish.
It’s strange that nobody else has set the play as a fascist fable, since it works uncannily well; Faustus’ assistant is even named Wagner! The show stays true to Marlowe’s text, but origamis it with interpolated scenes and characters into an intense exploration of fascism as a spiritual puzzle: how could educated, cultured people come to support the vulgarity, superstition and industrialized horror of the holocaust? Hitler’s rise becomes the backdrop to Faustus’s story, told by cleverly referencing our common knowledge of history. Faustus, as played by Jeremy Welter, is a mousy academic who isn’t satisfied with legitimate knowledge. His ambition to become superhuman leads him to meet with a pair of sleazy magicians who—like Nazi recruiters—are ever so solicitous while appealing to his fantasies.
The play proceeds in a succession of images, surreal, sexy and grotesque, often all at once. Faustus’ assistant, played as a brutal skinhead by Max Williamson, sexually bullies a young boy, who later dons the swastika armband and gets Hitler’s autograph in his own personal copy of Mein Kamph. Nathan Danzer plays a seductive devil as a cross-dressed femme fatale, quite overpowering his virtuous counterpart, played by Barbara Weber in white. Period songs, including “Du, du liegst mir im Herzen” and “Falling in Love Again” embellish and comment ironically on the action, and of course there’s plenty of bombastic Wagner music. Even the ensemble contributes to a dreamlike mood, moving slowly and deliberately as if in a ritual: under totalitarian rule, they must be most scrupulous in everything they say and do.
And just as rational people wonder what can be the appeal of that nonsense, we wonder how Faustus can fall into so transparent a trap. James Strange’s Mephistopheles captures the tortured soul of the fallen angel; Mohammed N. Elbsat as a friendly rabbi tries in vain to dissuade Faustus from his diabolical purpose, but is captured and meets a predictably grisly end. When Lucifer and Beelzebub appear as affable businessmen, they offer Faustus a vision of the Seven Deadly sins as a parade of concentration camp inmates, and supernatural intrusions are delivered in the cheesy style of a neighborhood haunted house. Faustus’ magical escapades are embarrassingly childish— whether slamming a pie in the face of the bucktoothed Pope or performing cheap parlor magic for the Fürer. Helen of Troy, pimped by Mephistopheles, doesn’t even try to conceal her contempt for him. You could say that Faustus was damned by toxic masculinity: the perverse will to power. At the end of the play Marlowe collides with Becket, as Welter’s final speech is delivered in voiceover, while he, nearly catatonic, is dressed as a ludicrous Hitler/clown. It’s a shattering moment: damnation as paralysis.
In The Tragic History of Doctor Faustus, Dale Gutzman does what he can be relied upon to do: creating a shattered mirror of our own world. It brilliantly embodies what drama theorist Herbert Blau called “blooded thought:” an analysis that can’t be reduced to dry words alone.
In Marlowe’s time, devils were very real: they were said to have appeared on stage when the play was performed, driving men mad. Today we need no supernatural agents to do the job.
Off the Wall Theatre presents
The Tragic History of Doctor Faustus
by Christopher Marlowe
playing through March 18