[This is the last installment of “Faust Clones,” my three-part examination of seven plays adapted from the Faust story which was first recorded in the late 16th century and lives on in the 21st. (ROTters are encouraged to go back to Part 1 on 15 January to familiarize themselves with the background of the legend and its origins.) In Part 3, I’ll look at the last two plays I selected for this article, Leonardo Shapiro’s unproduced radio play from 1993, Nothing Is Ever Lost, or All in Good Fun, and the most experimental and, arguably, farthest from the Renaissance roots of the story, John Jesurun’s FAUST/How I Rose from 1996 and 2004, sneaking us over the line into the 21st century.]
Theater director, writer, and production designer Leonardo Shapiro’s concern for ecology and the environment, and especially his focus on nuclear pollution, are openly reflected in Nothing Is Ever Lost, or All in Good Fun: Radioromance, as are several of his philosophic interests. Written in New Mexico in December 1993, Nothing Is Ever Lost is based on Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus.
Leonardo Shapiro (1946-97) was the founder and artistic director of The Shaliko Company (1972-92), an experimental theater group based in New York City’s East Village. As a prep school student in Lenox, Massachusetts, Shapiro hitchhiked to New York City frequently where he met and hung out with the seminal avant-garde theater group, the Living Theatre. Already politically active (his first arrest was at 13) and a devotee of Bertolt Brecht, Shapiro learned from the Living’s example that theater and politics could go together and he made politically active stage works from his start in the field. He was a student at New York University’s School of the Arts (1966-69) where he studied with, among others, Jerzy Grotowski; while a student at SOA, Shapiro staged the anti-war street musical Brother, You’re Next and formed the New York Free Theater (1968-69), a street troupe that protested racism and violence, with some of his classmates. After graduating with a BFA in directing, Shapiro lived near Taos, New Mexico, where he formed the Appleseed Circus (1969-71), a guerilla theater group which roamed the Four Corners mounting protest performances for environmentalism, against nuclear weapons, and calling attention to other liberal, leftist, and radical causes. Returning to New York City, he established Shaliko, a troupe dedicated to presenting politically and socially aware performances and applying the theories of Brecht and Grotowski. He served as an artist-in-residence at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, and then became director of the Trinity/La MaMa Performing Arts Program (1986-92), administered by Trinity but based at the famous East Village Off-Off-Broadway theater. When he retired from New York theater in 1992, Shapiro moved back to the Taos area and, continuing his theater work and his activism, he took to writing plays and poetry and a theater-based novel. Written in 1993, Nothing Is Ever Lost came out of that period of Shapiro’s life. Sadly, he was diagnosed with inoperable bladder cancer in 1995 and died in 1997 at the age of 51.
The play begins in radio station KAOS, an NPR outlet, where the Hermetic Mystery Theater of the Air is broadcasting Marlowe’s Tragical History of Doctor Faustus (which Shapiro’s Shaliko Company produced in 1988; see the discussion in Part 1 of “Faust Clones”). Johanna Gretchen Kepler reads The Chorus opening until Roger Radio interrupts the performance with a news bulletin from “Washing Done” (that’s the kind of sarcasm with which Shapiro leavens his script) about an incident at the Waste Isolation Pilot Program for Memory Eradication (WIPP-ME) on the Navajo Reservation in Arizona. Roger turns the broadcast over to Tom-Tom (Coyote) Rainwater on the scene. Tom-Tom reports that a truck caravan with 600 tons of radioactive waste en route to the WIPP-ME disposal site under the reservation has been lost for two days. While the station returns to the Doctor Faustus broadcast from time to time, it’s constantly interrupted by bulletins with direr and direr announcements and conflicting government party-line assurances and double-talk from various agencies. Marlowe’s text begins to disintegrate into a mix of contemporary references as Faustus sends greetings to “the Germans Karl [Jung is my guess—although he’s actually Carl—but he could mean Marx] and Sigmund [Freud]” and the play morphs into a search for the missing radioactive waste shipment from the Los Alamos Nuclear Weapons Complex (whose “artistic director” is Jim Jones).
Eventually, Johanna recruits Henry Faustus from the radio drama to help find the nuclear waste. (Heinrich is Goethe’s name for his Faust; Marlowe’s Faustus is John.) Faustus, who takes on the persona of the Lone Ranger, partners with Tonto, a send-up of the 1950s stereotype of a Hollywood Indian right down to his pidgin English. (Later in the play, Tonto remarks, in perfectly good English: “Maybe we can escape the stereotypes that trap us as well.”) The two ride off on a pair of . . . cats; Tonto’s feline steed is named Albert while Faustus’ cat is, appropriately, named Silver. Suddenly, the signal from the station is interrupted and a group called Revolting Artists breaks into the studio and claims responsibility for the missing nuclear waste. For the return of the radioactive material, they demand “to take over the NEA and turn it into a real endowment for real artists, namely us” and that “all art-work [be] protected by copyright forever” so that all the royalties can be invested in “working artists.” The artists’ complaint is that “the yahoos”—that is, the establishment—have “separated art from life, artists from public, form from content, and both from context.” (These are all claims Shapiro made—and wrote about—during his entire career. In fact, the whole Revolting Artists’ speech could be a capsulization of Shapiro’s lifelong political and social positions.) As Johanna denies they are the hijackers, the artists are beaten and carried out of the studio.
Meanwhile, Faustus and Tonto ride to the last place the nuclear-waste convoy was seen, the Silver Dollar Trading Post and Lounge on another Navajo “Res” (as Tom-Tom calls them) in Good Luck, Utah. (“Look like IHOP in Hell,” observes Tonto.) Tonto performs a magic trick with a rattlesnake—which sufficiently terrifies the bar customers that they answer the seekers’ questions. Tom-Tom reports strange phenomena occurring all around: “border crossings of all kinds,” “U.F.O. sightings,” “freak electrical storms.” There are also reports of “mounted bands of Native Americans raiding frontier settlements.”
The reporter interviews Old Dry Wind, the “senior representative” of the Traditional People who explains that “men from your government” came to buy a cave on Indian land for a waste dump, but the Diné (People) always refused because the land is holy; it is their sipapu, or place of emergence. Then the government made a secret deal with a “chief called Lawyer . . . a great talker, but not an honest man,” who tricked the People. The Ancient Elder begs listeners not to “allow anything to happen to” the sipapu—if it’s blocked by anything going into the cave, “Horrible things will happen.”
Back at KAOS, Johanna takes a phone call from Russ Perdudu who offers to trade “this convoy of trucks I found wandering around the dessert” for “this here radio network.” It seems his corporation, Perot/Time/Chrysler Spectacular Systems, needs a radio network to complete his conglomerate of Random House books, Warner Brothers movies, and Arts and Leisure Cable Network in order corner the media market and monopolize any story. Perdudu even proposes that his Mattel branch “whip up a terrific Mini-Convoy,” the deluxe set of which will come “with real nuclear waste! To transport and bury on your own site at home.” He adds excitedly, “God Bless America! We’ll sell the shit back to them . . . .” Told he’s on the air, Perdudu launches into a racist, anti-Semitic, nationalistic, anit-communist, anti-government rant—complete with slurs. Johanna exclaims at the “transforming power of the media” to “retribalize mankind” and despairs of “the ignoring of this power” because people’s consciousness has become numbed.
On the trail of the nuclear convoy, Faustus has used his “alchemical herbalist studies” to track down some “organic matter” he and Tonto obtained back at the Silver Dollar. Faustus says it’s “a mushroom,” so he calls on his late friend John Cage, who’s staying at “the Chelsea” and is something of a mycologist (studier of fungi, don’t you know). Cage, whose dialogue includes a quotation from the composer that Shapiro used prominently in Shaliko promotional materials, explains that the substance isn’t a mushroom at all, but peyote, which evokes “visions, changes in perception, time sense, and mood.” This sends Faustus and Tonto off on a vision quest for the practitioners of the Indian peyote religion. At the same time, back at KAOS, Tom-Tom is interviewing “an unnamed senior scientist” at Los Alamos called Deep Throat who reveals that the missing convoy isn’t carrying radioactive waste, but actual bombs that the lab was supposed to have dismantled in compliance with various treaties and acts of Congress—but didn’t to save time and money. (The scientists also figured the bombs could be reassembled should “geo-political circumstances change,” rationalized Deep Throat, or—just to give you an indication of Shapiro’s basic politics—“the Republicans get back in the White House”—which, of course, they did three years after Shapiro’s death.)
I’ve mentioned several times that topics or phrases Shapiro used in the script of Nothing Is Ever Lost were concerns and interests of his often since the start of his political activism in his teens. While nearly all of Shapiro’s productions had strong politically and socially critical aspects—if the script wasn’t already politically aware, Shapiro staged it so that social and political criticism was at least a subtext—he seldom included such blatant personal concerns and interests in his work before returning to New Mexico. Among the references in Nothing Is Ever Lost that draw on Shapiro’s personal philosophy and politics, for instance, is the “Los Alamos National Weapons Complex,” Shapiro’s fictionalized name for the Los Alamos National Laboratory, the famous nuclear facility where the playwright led a two-day environmental-theater protest on 5 and 6 August 1970 (the 25th anniversary of the Hiroshima atomic bombing). It was the first-ever such demonstration at the lab (see my post, “Song in the Blood (Hiroshima/Los Alamos),” 5 August 2009). The Revolting Artists’ call for the National Endowment for the Arts to be transformed into “a real endowment for real artists” and their demand that art works generate permanent royalties to support working artists are actual positions the playwright staked out, most vociferously during the uproar over the defunding of the so-called NEA Four, some of whom were friends and colleagues of Shapiro’s. His argument that grant evaluators and critics have divorced artistic form, which may be judged, from content, which may not, goes back to the earliest days of his professional career as well. Shapiro’s invocation of “U.F.O. sightings” was a topic he actually used in a play, Strangers, workshopped in 1990 (see my post, “Shaliko’s Strangers,” 3 and 6 March 2014).
As the search proceeds, Shapiro’s text becomes more diffuse, airier, less concrete. Dialogue gives way more and more to monologues and speeches, sometimes adapted from Marlowe or other sources like Indian prayers or politico-philosophical treatises, such as one delivered by French Woman, identified as a Situationist, a proponent of a French post-World War II art and political movement by which Shapiro had been influenced. In a soliloquy by Lullaby, Shapiro references ideas from Shiva Naipaul’s Journey to Nowhere, an examination of the People’s Temple debacle of the Reverend Jim Jones (which was one of the inspirations for Strangers, the story line for which was based on a radiation contamination in Goiania, Brazil, in 1987). Lullaby declares, “You have learned to be blind, you have learned to be deaf,” an echo, perhaps, of Tennessee Williams’s indictment of society’s intentional (or, perhaps, inattentional) blindness in Glass Menagerie. (Williams was another of Shapiro’s acknowledged influences.) Later, Faustus echoes the same notion in this thoughts. The landscape becomes increasingly threatening and ominous, littered with radioactive animal corpses and the detritus of civilization. Faustus and Johanna (Gretchen) fall in love—and Tonto begins to behave less like the faithful Indian companion of TV’s Lone Ranger and more like Faustus’ Mephistophilis, leading Faustus to a secret destination. They arrive at the Holy Mountain of the South, one of the four sacred mountains of the Navajo epistemology that demark Dinétah, the traditional homeland of the Diné (see my article on the Navajo healing rite, “‘My Mind Restore For Me’: Navajo Healing Ceremonies,” 15 May 2013), as Tonto leads Faustus down a thousand feet beneath the Earth’s surface.
The searchers slide even deeper through an ice tube into a cavern Faustus compares to Plato’s Cave in reverse. “No,” replies Tonto, “it’s Plato who got it backwards. . . . It’s not ideas that are real, it’s the world itself.” Gretchen arrives, borne by Silver, but she can’t stay. Tonto reveals that they are at the sipapu—and the convoy trucks are there, too. They’d been hidden there all along, not hijacked but made invisible to detection systems. Tonto and the Indians that have survived despite the Euro-Americans’ efforts to “poison us with your silly scientism and repression” plan to use “the sacred filth in the trucks” to effect their disappearance from the Earth into the Fifth World, leaving the white man “here in the mess you have made.” (This is a sort of reverse effect of the 19th-century Plains Indian Ghost Dance religion that envisioned the supernatural removal of the white man and his civilization, leaving the Native Americans in the natural paradise they imagined preceded the arrival of the Europeans.) Tonto and his cohorts have “called a healing ceremony” to open the portal. (In traditional Navajo creation mythology, the Fifth World is the present existence of humans, but Shapiro has extended his dramatic epistemology to make this our Fourth World, with which the Diné were dissatisfied, and posited a new, Fifth World of renewal and happiness.)
As Johanna describes the scene unfolding in the distance, we envision a sort of gigantic healing ceremony, with masses of people, including Anglos and Buddhists, dancing along with the trucks while “a picture [is] drawn in the sand, . . . a giant tapestry pattern with some kind of colored stuff”—a huge sand painting, an integral part of the Navajo healing rite. The mountains open up and absorb the trucks as Faustus and Tonto emerge and chant a variation of the Nightway song. Faustus tells Johanna that he must go with Tonto and the others (“I made a deal”) “to be their Canary.” (Shapiro likened artists to the canary in the coal mine; also, in the Navajo legend, several animals go into the Fifth World in advance of the Diné to scout ahead and bring back word.)
As Johanna describes the mountains themselves rising up into the heavens, she reverts to her role as radio announcer, dedicating the performance of Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus to “Orson the Magnificent” (Orson Welles was one of Shapiro’s acknowledged inspirations, and this radio play was clearly modeled to an extent on Welles’s famous Halloween broadcast in 1938 of The War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells.) As you’ve no doubt noticed, Shapiro isn’t above some low humor and silliness, and Johanna announces that the next presentation on KAOS will be Wuthering Heights, adapted by David Rammit, AKA David Mamet.
Native American culture, philosophy, and spiritual beliefs were extremely important to and influential on Shapiro’s life and work from his earliest years. After all, he named his New York company Shaliko after the Zuni messenger spirits between the gods and man, the Shalakos, and it’s part of what drew him back to New Mexico to retire. The Nightway healing chant of the Navajos, which Shapiro viewed as a model for theater as a “healing art,” upon which he also modeled his concluding poem, “In Tsegihi,” in Nothing Is Ever Lost is a prime example. (Tsegihi is a place sacred to the Navajo where a shaman was taught the Nightway chant by one of the Yeibechi and brought it back to the Diné.) Also significant are the references to the Diné, the Navajo name for themselves (“the People”); the subjugation and manipulation of Native Americans and the suppression or appropriation of their culture; the sipapu, “the place of emergence” in the lore of many Indian peoples (including, particularly, the Taos Pueblos whose sipapu is Blue Lake in the sacred Sangre de Cristo Mountains near Shapiro’s Taos County home); peyote, a hallucinogenic used in Native American religious rites (and which Shapiro used in New Mexico during his earlier sojourn); and the Yei Be Che Mountains, an allusion to Yeibichai (or Yeibechi), a spirit in the Navajo religion; all are taken from elements of the playwright’s personal philosophy. Shapiro also believed, as he laments in Nothing Is Ever Lost, that western science and technology, though he wasn’t a Luddite, had so separated us from the natural world that we had lost our spirituality. Even the invocation of “mounted bands of Native Americans raiding frontier settlements” comes from Shapiro’s childhood imagination when he dreamed of himself as an eight-year-old boy who “danced, carried a tomahawk to school, scalped the principal, took back the country, drove out the white man, restored the buffalo, and lived happily ever after”—a boy’s vision of the Ghost Dance ceremony.
The tomahawk dream of 8-year-old Richard Leo Shapiro was one of the tactics the isolated little boy, among the minority whites in a Cuban-majority public school system in Miami and then one of only two Jews at the Admiral Farragut Academy military school he attended in St. Petersburg, Florida, found to gain control of his hostile world, at least in his imagination. Magic tricks, which a young Leo Shapiro used to practice, were another. (This is stage magic, or prestidigitation. As a youngster, Shapiro studied with and even assisted retired professional magician Al Cohn, 1891-1988, known as the “Sponge Ball King.” The playwright was also fascinated by the notion of “real” magic, or necromancy, and read the works of occultist Aleister Crowley. It was one of the things, alongside Marlowe’s poetry, that attracted him to Doctor Faustus.) In the radio play, Shapiro put these words, partly a reference to his own childhood and partly an indictment of the establishment bosses (for not being better at their deceptions), into the mouth of Henry Faustus:
When I was a boy I did magic tricks. I made things appear and disappear, I changes ed one thing into another. I found things that were lost and lost things that were found. Cards, balls, silk handkerchiefs, rabbits. Now I’m 500 years old. You’d think I would have learned better tricks.
Nothing Is Ever Lost, which would run about 80 minutes, was never produced or broadcast, though it may have been submitted to a local radio station in Taos County. Given Shapiro’s habitual lack of subtlety in expressing his politics or his disdain for the establishment, especially in scripts where he was in control of the text (as opposed to plays written by others, like the original Doctor Faustus or even Bertolt Brecht’s The Measures Taken), it would have surprised me if he could have found a station ready to take on Nothing Is Ever Lost. Consistent with Shapiro’s political leanings and his general suspicion of government—he was a supporter of anarchism and socialism and considered figures like Murray Bookchin and Michael Harrington, also a friend, influences—a main plotline in the play is a nuclear-waste threat and a government conspiracy involving the collusion of business and establishment leaders. As usual, the theater artist wore his political heart on his sleeve—and I imagine that the daws did pick at it. Still, Shapiro wanted to help the audience find the lost (or just hidden) things—without losing the things that were found.
* * * *
In 1996, the New York-based Builders Association, a performance and media company, commissioned John Jesurun (b. 1951) to write a play. A Faust story wasn’t anything Jesurun was contemplating as a subject, but that’s what the Theater Neumarkt of Zürich, the New York company’s financer, wanted. “I said the only way I’ll write this is if you give me what I thought was an exorbitant amount of money. It was a Faustian deal,” the writer said—even though he supposed on another occasion that selling his soul to the devil was something “I don’t think I would” ever do. “It’s too much trouble.”
“I thought they would say ‘no,’” Jesurun continued. “But they said ‘yes,’ so I had to do it.” But he took on the 500-year-old legend on his own terms—an approach for which the avant-garde writer, director, and multi-media artist famous for his integration of language, film, space, and media habitually took—and he “took the simple story . . . and attacked it in my own way.”
The end result, FAUST/How I Rose, the playwright declared,
has very little resemblance to the German ‘Faust.’ It is really more about the devil than about Faust. It’s sympathetic to the devil. Faust has a friendly, if not a romantic relationship with the devil, who is played by a woman . . . . It’s from the devil’s point of view. I would suppose everyone has had the devil’s point of view at one time, because we’re human.
The Builders Association used excerpts of the play in Jesurun’s 1997 Jump Cut (Faust) and the full FAUST/How I Rose, then under the title Imperial Motel (Faust), premièred at Mexico City’s Teatro El Granero in 1998. Jesurun has also directed a German version of How I Rose in Frankfurt at the Künstlerhaus Mousonturm in 1999. The U.S. (and English-language) première, a co-production by Teatro de Arena and the National Theater Company of Mexico, a couple of Mexico City troupes, ran at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Harvey Theater in Fort Greene from 16 to 20 November 2004. (The performance on 17 November was in Spanish without an English translation; all others were in English.) Directed by Martín Acosta, who’s the artistic director of Teatro de Arena, the production was part of New York City’s Mexico Now, a multidisciplinary arts festival sponsored by the Mexican Consulate and Arts International. The play’s English text was published in the Performing Arts Journal in September 2004.
FAUST/How I Rose begins with the title character (Ari Brickman), whom Jersurun makes a jet-setting “international diplomat” in a black suit, flying over a burning city. (This, and much else, is suggested by the actors, as there is little scenery. “The scene is where the artist says it is,” explained Jesurun. “It throws logic out the window, and you are compelled to believe it.”) Jesurun, also the show’s designer, employed a giant screen on which he projected videos. Faust’s friend and confident, Phaedra (Guillermina Campuzano), is a mouse who’s an intellectual. In an extended trial scene, Faust defends Gretchen, or Rhonda Kindermoerd (Carolina Politti), his assistant, against a charge of killing her unborn baby (her last name means ‘child murder’ in German). She’s freed when the dead child (Manuel Domínguez) possesses the stenographer and testifies in Rhonda’s behalf.
The focal character in Jesurun’s telling is Mephistopheles (Mónica Dionne), a female punk-rocker in a blue leather jacket with her red hair in spikes. The play happens from her point of view. This Mephistopheles, tossed out of heaven for inventing love (“So, ok it was a mistake. How was I to know?”), is in love with Faust, who’s “too busy with his own reasoning” to take much notice. Then Jesurun throws in a witches’ Sabbath, war, global political corruption, and what the New York Times’ Margo Jefferson described as “a civilization so jaded that even temptation looks petty and stupid.” Nearly a dozen settings fly past in what the director called “an immense imaginary geography,” including earth (a postapocalyptic theater of war), hell (a doctor’s waiting room), a bad 24-hour diner, and a psychedelic porn theater. Acosta called it a “pessimistic theater to conjure up the bad times that are giving us the eye; to raise questions—and light up flames.” In the Village Voice, Michael Feingold characterized Jesurun’s script as “leaping from high tragedy to coarse put-down and from grandest archaism to lowest contemporary slang.”
Jesurun designed not only the set, but the videos as well. The setting consisted of one large white, slightly raked, rectangular platform, which served as the performance area, and another rectangular form suspended on a slant over the platform. Both forms served as screens for Jesurun’s videos, thus surrounding the characters with swirling images, not all of which clearly corresponded to the scenic moment, the spoken text, or the themes of the play (though sometimes they did most eloquently). Images were projected on the floor and on the hanging screen, theoretically integrating the video with the live action as the video’s images shifted and moved.
I saw Jesurun’s FAUST/How I Rose with my frequent theater partner, Diana, on Tuesday, 16 November 2004 and it was probably the worst piece of theater I’ve seen in many, many years. I couldn’t figure out anything that Jesurun was doing or saying. That pretty much sums it all up for me. The performance lasted only 90 minutes, but it was the longest hour-and-a-half I’ve spent in the theater since I can recall. If there’d been an intermission—they were smart—I’d have proposed to Diana (who also didn’t like the show) that we leave. I haven’t done that in many, many years; I can remember only one time in well over two decades now. (As it was, droves of people did leave during the performance. I usually can’t bring myself to do that to working actors, but they weren’t really wrong in this instance.)
I can’t even tell you anything so you can test my response—I couldn’t follow a thing in this play. It was so muddled and bloviating, even when I could focus on the performance—my mind kept wandering—I couldn’t figure it out. I mean, it obviously had some connection to the Faust legend, but beyond the sketchiest outline, I can’t even describe the narrative without help. I won’t dignify it by calling it a plot. (I cribbed much of the above synopsis and then used the published text to confirm my description.) I assume Jesurun had something in mind when he wrote How I Rose, but I’ll be damned if I can see what it was. What it resembled is something that a bunch of over-intellectualized high schoolers who think they’re really, really smart might put together. (My companion called it “sophomoric,” but that sounds like college-level to me, so I offered “juvenile.” “Pretentious” also came up, but they aren’t mutually exclusive.)
There was only one fun thing in the performance, but it was ruined halfway in. I doubt it meant anything significant, but, then, how would I know? There were at least half a dozen Beatles quotations in the dialogue (no singing) and the program material. (Also one Dylan and one extensive Beach Boys.) My problem later was that the performance was so enervating that I couldn’t remember most of the lyrics that were quoted. The few I did retain were “Baby You Can Drive My Car” (used as a scene title in the program), “Lucy in the sky with diamonds” (Mephistopheles is also called Lucy—short, I presume, for Lucifer, though the character is a woman), “Picture yourself on a boat on a river.” (Margo Jefferson also included one in her Times review I didn’t even remember—“wild thing”; either it went by me and I never heard it, or it was in a part of the show when I tuned out.) There were others, but I couldn’t remember them until I looked them up later. I also couldn’t remember the Dylan, but the Beach Boys’ was “Help me, Rhonda. Help, help me, Rhonda. Help me, Rhonda, yeah—get her out of my heart.” The only fun I had was spotting them and trying to remember the songs they came from. Some were the titles, of course, so those were easy. Jesurun ruined this enjoyment by actually acknowledging the Beatles somewhere near the middle of the play. Until then it was like one of those hidden-images pictures where you have to search out images of, say, animals, disguised in a forest scene. As I said, though, what all those pop-music references meant is beyond my puny brain to figure out. (A sample of how my mind was wandering: I kept wondering how all these pop-music quotes would work in the Spanish text.)
(I was at the Library for the Performing Arts a couple of days after the performance. While I was waiting for something, I had a glance at the PAJ edition of the text and I found the Dylan quote I couldn’t remember: “. . . knock, knock, knocking on heaven’s door.” In the play, the sense is literal. I also spotted one of the other Beatles quotes I couldn’t remember: “strawberry fields forever”; it was just dropped into some dialogue.)
I never determined what the purpose of this gimmick is, but my bigger questions are—first, why would the Mexican companies choose to stage How I Rose? It had been around some (since ’96), and Acosta even staged the Mexico City première in 1998. Second, why would they export it to New York; and third, why would BAM accept it? I find it hard to accept that my judgment is so off the beam that How I Rose might be considered good theater by someone with discernment—though the PAJ publication suggests, I suppose, that somebody thought it was worth documenting. (Some people leaving behind me at the end of the BAM performance were extolling the production, but I suspect their taste and judgment. There were even a few “Bravos” at the curtain call. De gustibus non disputandum est, as my dad would say. Or, perhaps more appropriately, “Audiences will buy trash, but not garbage”—a favorite admonition of the tech director at Rutgers. You don’t suppose it’s a case of the play being so confusing and meaningless that no one can understand it, but everyone’s too afraid to admit that? The emperor’s new play!)
I’m sorry I can’t say more about How I Rose to show if I was just dense or something. Another example of my wandering mind that night was that I was thinking of how I’d describe this thing. I never figured it out, though—as you can see. I just couldn’t retain anything! And the acting—everyone seemed to like to shout every now and then for no reason. The cast were all Mexican and many had really heavy accents, plus, as Jefferson pointed out, some were mush-mouthed and speaking very fast, so there were parts of the dialogue I never understood, even when I tried to listen.
Jefferson’s review of How I Rose finally appeared in the Times on 19 November, the day before the last performance. Jefferson essentially said—more articulately than I did—what I felt about the play, but I think she was far kinder. I don’t know if she was soft-pedaling or if she really saw some valid artistry at work. Characterizing it as “elaborate and obscure, flattering the intellectual vanity of artist and audience,” she described the production as “a postmodern pastiche of information and imagery” and “multimedia extravaganza.” But “the Faust tale,” Jefferson asserted, “needs more than the hip intellectualism and multimedia projections.” “Mr. Jesurun uses a rhetoric of self-conscious grandeur, slang and bits of rhyme and alliteration,” the Times writer reported; however, “Faust needs a verbal style that does more than simply toy with chaos and violent emotion.” Jefferson also thought, “The occasional literary allusions and frequent rock lyrics don’t help” and that the “actors stride about the stage and strike attitudes. They speak forcefully but not always clearly. The script defeats them and the film engulfs them.” “As for the design,” observed Jefferson, “images flow constantly onto the stage and a screen above it. Some of them compelled, some drifted.” In the end, she summed up, “It was very accomplished, and almost none of it mattered”—which is how I saw it.
On the 18th, the only earlier review I’ve found (all the remaining print notices came out after the production closed), Jeremy McCarter of the New York Sun called FAUST/How I Rose a “wild riff” on the Faust legend that “scrambles past, present, and future,” and declared that it would “pitch even the strongest-stomached theatergoer, or the strongest souled, into metaphysical vertigo.” The Sun review-writer continued that “anyone who knows the legend from the Goethe play will be, at best, perplexed.” “Free associative, willfully obscure, and sporadically captivating,” McCarter described How I Rose, adding that the play “smacks of ‘Fantastic Voyage’ and an anxious seminarian’s dream.” Remarking on the nearly bare stage, the Sun reviewer observed, “Bathing a stage and a company of actors in video is not an overwhelmingly novel approach to stagecraft. But Mr. Jesurun’s best images have a galvanizing appeal. They tend to show, or imply, elevation: lightning behind clouds, an escalator, the stars.” McCarter also complained about Jesurun’s “far-flung” script: “Having seen the play, and read the script, and all the press materials thoughtfully assembled to accompany it, I still have only a fleeting sense of what ‘Faust/How I Rose’ is about.” Jesurun and Acosta’s “use of live video provides a lift here and there,” the journalist asserted, describing some striking visual moments, but he found the cast “shouting some lines and turning away from the audience for others.” McCarter summed up, “The show runs 90 minutes but feels much longer; it may be the densest piece to play the Harvey this side of the millennium. . . . Mr. Jesurun’s play grows wearying. Like Faust’s doomed plane, it lacks the fuel to complete its journey.”
Prior to the show’s BAM opening, Village Voice writer Michael Feingold wrote in a preview: “Many things, including some audience members’ hackles, are bound to rise when John Jesurun’s Faust/How I Rose receives its New York unveiling.” He warned us to “get your right brains ready for linguistic dislocations. . . the likes of which you’ve never experienced.” Jesurun, who comes from a multi-lingual, multi-cultural background (his father’s family is from Curaçao, his mother’s is Puerto Rican, and as a military brat, Jesurun grew up on army bases including many years in Germany), “may be the perfect writer to play the devil with our everyday cultural parameters, livening up our isolationist notion of Eurocentric dead-white-guys art with a good dash of Mexican salsa roja.” The Voice journalist analyzed the playwright’s dramaturgy this way:
If Jung described modern humanity as ‘in search of a soul,’ Jesurun’s games with language, time, and narrative, you might say, are being played over the void where that invisible object used to reside. In a world where dogged materialism and literal-mindedness seem to rule, he offers an escape hatch that comes without obligations to technology, machinery, or the ostensibly solid realities that, as political life has recently been teaching us, can vanish overnight if someone’s in a mood to throw his power around. By the time Faust/How I Rose comes along, we’ll know if we’re in for four more years of devil’s deals or not; either way, our souls are likely to need the liberating lunacy of his verbal dance.
Then, four days after the U.S. première closed, Feingold wrote in his review of the play that it’s a “rich, densely allusive text” which Acosta’s Mexican troupe delivered “in a solemn, sometimes thickly accented English that made its iridescent, sly rapidly shifting verbal patterns seem ponderous and stilted.” Though Ari Bruckman as Faust and Mónica Dionne as Mephistopheles “registered powerfully,” the “production as a whole felt strained. The initial quality of every Jesurun text, a madcap breeziness, was lost in the effortful non-translation.” Feingold ended his notice with the hope for How I Rose: “Someday, a troupe that can play it at its own colloquial speed will make that [i.e., the script’s depth of gravity] clear; at BAM in English, it felt like, of all things, a foreign classic.”
In the theater trade weekly Backstage, publishing the next month, Michael Lazan characterized FAUST/How I Rose as “fashionable to an uncomfortable extreme” which “consists of far too much dry, expository philosophical rambling, including utterly odd and annoying repetition of the names and lines from Beatles songs.” Lazan suggested that “perhaps the audience would have been more mesmerized had the piece had more poeticism, more imagery, more magic” and reported that the “only respite from the text is the bare, gorgeous stage, as supplemented by trippy videos framing the action.” The Teatro de Arena cast “seems mostly lost in this diffuse world,” the Backstager observed, and though the “talents” of a few actors “are sometimes evident, . . . Mónica Dionne, as Mephistopheles, is fairly flat and uninvolving though visually striking. So is the production.” In the cyber press, Dan Bacalzo on TheaterMania called BAM’s How I Rose “a flawed production” which is “somewhat fragmented in the actual playing of the scenes.” Bacalzo found that “the richness and lyricism of Jesurun’s language is ill served by director Martín Acosta. Too much of the time, the humor and poetry of the text is lost,” exacerbated by the “odd disjunctures and unlikely resonances” created by the interpolations of popular song lyrics. In English, the cyber reviewer felt, “the show is hindered by a flatness in the overall delivery of the lines.” In the end, the TM review-writer acknowledged that “the [video] images are often more interesting than what’s happening on the stage, so I found myself watching the screen as much as—if not more than—the live action.
In the academic press, Northwestern University’s Kathryn Farley, writing in the Theatre Journal, called How I Rose “an intricate and highly charged battle of wits between Faust and Mephistopheles” couched in “clever and current” dialogue that “proved humorous and poignant as well.” Jesurun’s linguistic “concoction composed mostly of complex metaphysical constructs allowed otherwise intangible ideas to become increasingly more accessible and exciting” and the “pithiness of the spoken-word text was matched by the visual sophistication of the projected imagery.” “The imagery,” Farley reported, “was lush and dazzling throughout.” This reviewer found, however, that “many of Acosta’s directorial choices did little to highlight the cleverness of the script or the dramatic impact of the projected imagery.” In particular, Farley complained of “ the rapid-fire pacing of the piece and the sloppiness of its vocal presentation” especially “the actors’ furious delivery.” Furthermore, the Northwestern prof felt, “Acosta’s staging also seemed overly cautious and occasionally uninspired.”
As I warned in the first installment of “Faust Clones,” I may not come to any general conclusion after reviewing these seven selected adaptations of the Faust legend. I suspect that having chosen seven other plays wouldn’t have altered that result. I also asserted that this collection, ranging in style, approach, and period, shows that Faust will perhaps always be a compelling and adaptable figure for theatrical portrayal. The arrogant man who flouted every constraint of God and man to seek endless knowledge and power can be manipulated and manhandled to virtually any extreme, be made silly (Bedazzled), set to music (Gounod’s Faust or Damn Yankees), treated with admiration (Goethe’s Faust) or held up as a warning (Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus), made a figure of fun (Doctor Faustus Light the Lights), or post-modernized (FAUST/How I Rose) and survive to appear on a stage again in yet another incarnation. Is there another literary character who’s had so many avatars? Perhaps it’s simplistic to suggest that the notion of making a deal with the devil may just be so captivating that writers, poets, playwrights, composers, choreographers, filmmakers, and artists of all genres just can’t stop imagining and reimagining the implications. Maybe that’s all there is to conclude from this examination.