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Theatre Reviews Faust adaptation injects levity at expense of menacing elements

Faust, played by Sean Hauk, falls in love with a poor, young peasant named Gretchen (Priscilla Taylor). It is Gretchen who pays the price for the Faustian pact.

Christine Buijs

2 out of 4 stars

Title
Faust
Written by
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Directed by
Jeannette Lambermont-Morey
Actors
Sean Hauk
Music
Leslie Arden
Company
Theatre by the Bay
Venue
Mady Centre for the Performing Arts
City
Barrie, Ont.

Summer and Will Shakespeare are practically synonymous in Canada. You can find productions of plays by England's national poet from Shakespeare by the Sea Festival in Saint John's to Bard on the Beach in Vancouver, with the Stratford Festival and many others sandwiched between.

To be honest, all the Bardolatry can be a bit much. So good on Theatre by the Bay in Barrie – an hour's drive north of Toronto, traffic permitting – for taking on a different national poet.

The summer-theatre company has done Shakespeare 10 times to date – but for their 15th-anniversary season they've turned to Germany's Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and his magnum opus, Faust.

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This Faust has something to lure in musical theatre fans, too – a new score by Leslie Arden, the Canadian composer of such works as The Boys are Coming Home (aka One Step Forward) and The House of Martin Guerre (which is getting a major revival in Chicago this fall).

Don't mistake it for a true musical adaptation, however: Director Jeannette Lambermont-Morey is essentially staging an abridged version of Faust, Part One (published in 1808; revised in 1829) in the German scholar David Luke's rhyming verse translation – which won the European Poetry Translation Prize in 1989.

Arden's scattered, melancholy songs, full of pleasing multipart harmonies sung by a cast of eight, use the late Luke as lyricist. (Goethe interspersed songs in his drama, but did not live to see a musical setting of them.)

The composer also contributes extensive underscoring to the tragedy – leading a five-person band, with actors occasionally lending a hand on recorder, violin or percussion.

You may think you know the legend of Faust, but Goethe's version will likely surprise you in both content and structure if you've never read it.

Indeed, it begins with not one but two pacts. Mephistopheles (Jake Deeth in an well-spoken, wry performance) first makes a bet with The Lord that he can seduce one of his favourite subjects away from a righteous pursuit of knowledge.

That would be Faust (Sean Hauk), who seems ripe for the picking. A dissatisfied and depressed intellectual, he has turned away from physics and history, and has taken an interest in the dark arts. Shortly after we first meet him, he's about to end it all.

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Mephistopheles offers to show him more of the world than he ever dreamed of, and to be his servant for life – in exchange, of course, for Faust's servitude to the Devil after death.

"I'm not exactly a grandee / but if you'd fancy getting through / Your life in partnership with me / I shall with pleasure, without more ado / Wholly devote myself to you," goes the pitch in Luke's translation. (Though highly praised for its accuracy, this version definitely has a British feel to it, and is not particularly modern, for better or for worse.)

Bargain brokered, Faust and Mephistopheles head off on various bizarre misadventures – playing around with drunk fools in a pub, meeting baboons and witches. It only becomes interesting from a plot point of view when Faust falls in love with a poor, young peasant named Gretchen (Priscilla Taylor). It is Gretchen who pays the price for the Faustian pact.

Lambermont-Morey has taken a jaunty approach to her production (which I saw in a preview), adding in humble dance sequences – and emphasizing the comedic elements, often to the point of slapstick.

That can be fun at times, but at the moment the otherworldly elements seem more goofy than anything, and they grow tiresome when sapped of menace or wonder. "What rubbish is this crone repeating?" Faust asks at one point, as a witch dances with her talking apes. "My head's half split by this entire / performance; it's like some massed choir / Of fifty thousand idiots bleating." (He may have a point.)

Faust, as Lambermont-Morey writes in her director's note, is a man "who longs at one and the same time for supreme knowledge, and for no knowledge at all." He wants both power and peace – like most of us.

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Hauk shows some of that struggle. But it's only when he is singing – in his beautiful, bell-like voice – that you really get a deep sense of those two conflicting longings. Too often as of yet, his Faust can seem a tourist in his own play.

For a heartfelt, human performance, look to Taylor's sweet, soft Gretchen. She's delightful in the scene where the girl discovers jewels that the devil has hidden in her bedroom – cautious, but enraptured.

Gab Desmond also delivers the verse with verve playing Gretchen's brother, Valentine, in a fine scene in which he declares his pride in his sister's virtue. His sword fight with Faust (helped by magic) is the best-staged moment of the night.

Unfortunately, as Valentine is dying, he has to stand up and sing a long song in which he slut-shames his sister. It's one of the many scenes when you become aware of just how odd this version of Faust is – and how unnecessary the songs are absent of a fuller reworking of the play.

But I do love how Barrie's small, but vibrant theatre community has such a passion for rarely done plays. This upcoming season at Talk is Free Theatre – the regular-season company that shares the Mady Centre for the Performing Arts with Theatre by the Bay – Lambermont-Morey will return to direct Thomas Shadwell's 1676 The Libertine. For some, it's worth the drive just to see and hear texts so infrequently staged.

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