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Pure pulchritude—as in firm, young, comely flesh—is perhaps the least artistically compelling of the many reasons you’ll have for catching Synetic Theater’s belligerently entertaining Faust, so let’s deal with it first.
Put plainly, you won’t find a local theater at the moment where there are more lithe, ripped, attractive bodies writhing and humping than at the Rosslyn Spectrum. Shirtless punk boys with wasp waists, bulging biceps, and copious piercings; slender goth girls decked out in shredded fishnet stockings, combat boots, studded leather collars, and form-fitting tops that leave little to the imagination even before a scene of blood-smeared carnality in which a few breasts pop perkily into view.
Nothing gratuitous about any of this. Goethe’s Faust has always been about temptations of the flesh, so why wouldn’t director Paata Tsikurishvili want to make the flesh tempting? Also, it’s pretty constantly in motion. He begins the evening by having his reedy Mephistopheles (Dan Istrate) slither from a steaming, center-stage bathtub to be buffed, stroked, brushed, pawed, and outfitted in black leather by a skittering entourage. Then the steam turns sulfurous, and the devilish horde disappears beneath tables piled high with books and jars of suspended body parts in formaldehyde as old professor Faust (Greg Marzullo) enters, stooped and shuffling in his housecoat, muttering about the inadequacies of philosophy. Mephistopheles offers him the usual trade—experience in the here-and-now, for his soul in the hereafter—and no sooner has the blood dried on their contract than the old prof is snorting stimulants, experimenting with brute force (Mephistopheles has a remote that allows him to put his minions on “slo-mo” and “pause” so Faust can smack them), and being pumped full of deviltry via hoses and tubes hooked to every orifice and limb he’s got.
Off comes the housecoat, and darned if the wizened old prof hasn’t been transformed into a strapping young stud, ready to conquer the world. He craves both knowledge and love—he’s spotted a sweet innocent named Gretchen (Irina Tsikurishvili) at the library—but Mephistopheles prefers to serve him carnal pleasures and—well, you know the rest.
The director and his co-adaptor Nathan Weinberger have stripped the narrative to its essentials while keeping the emphasis on plot points that can best be handled visually. Anyone who’s seen a Synetic production knows the company never tires of pushing movement toward dance and musical underscoring into moody atmospherics. But where the troupe has previously excelled in such 19th-century imagery as carriages pulled by teams of invisible horses, in Faust, Synetic is peddling 21st-century spectacle: club-hopping metalheads careening around crowded dance floors, blood slopping onto clear plastic shower curtains during rough sex, a bathtubmobile worthy of Batman whooshing through clouds of dry-ice smoke. The score is rock-inflected, the choreography head-banging, the grunge-chic costumes straight out of Wallpaper or Vice. This Mephistopheles gets his long leather coats from the same men’s shop as Keanu Reeves, establishes dominion over Faust by dressing him like a cheap hustler, and can’t see the attraction in a girl who hems her flower-print dresses, as Gretchen does, below the knee.
There’s method to the makeover. The Synetic team has asked itself where Goethe’s romantically inclined hero might find both temptation and comfort in today’s world and has come up with plausibly contemporary answers. Their Mephistopheles is a snarky dealer whose drug of choice is experience (Istrate makes him a playful, impish, thoroughly engaging manipulator), while their Faust is a hard-partying scholar with an addictive personality (Marzullo gives him intellectual sweetness to counter what might otherwise come across as arrogance). Tellingly, when temptations are offered him—be they cocaine, liquor, or even a necklace for his beloved Gretchen—they’re nearly always stashed in hollowed-out books because, in this prof’s worldview, all good things come from books.
The staging is feverishly inventive—that bathtubmobile-in-flight effect is amazing, as is a baby-ripped-from-womb moment—all of it set off by the eerie shadows Colin K. Bills’ lighting finds in Georgi Alexi-Meskhishvili’s sets and costumes. And as always with this company, the performances are recklessly energetic. Besides the three principals, there are smart cameos by Anna Lane as a cheerfully carnal widow, and Andrew Zox as Gretchen’s born-to-be-skewered brother.
What’s most gratifying, though, is that Synetic, which has over the past few years created a company style so distinctive in its visuals and performance tics that it has threatened to overwhelm any text the troupe took up—making Hamlet seem a first cousin to Dracula, at least in look and voice—now appears to have turned a crucial corner. No one who’s seen Synetic’s other work will confuse Faust with anything that’s gone before. It’s still distinctive, but differently so—and with no diminution in grace or inspiration.
Lee Blessing’s accusatory 1988 terrorist hostage drama Two Rooms would probably feel bland even if Theater Alliance hadn’t had the misfortune of opening it within a week of United 93. The playwright’s tale—of an American professor kidnapped in Beirut and his wife’s struggles with both a State Department handler who urges patience and a newspaper reporter who urges activism— feels hopelessly simplistic today. And the juxtaposition with the 9/11 movie only serves to highlight the play’s overstatement and clumsy construction.
At the H Street Playhouse, a rectangular open space represents both of the titular rooms—the Beirut cell in which the professor, denied paper by his captors, spends three years composing rambling letters home in his head; and the professor’s study in the United States, stripped of all but a small mat by his wife so she’ll have a place where she can imagine what he’s going through. Performers Kathleen Coons and David Johnson occupy their separate prisons on the space simultaneously.
Joining them from time to time are the handler, incomprehensibly callous and abrasive as played by Kerri Rambow, and the reporter, who in Jason Stiles’ clumsy portrayal is simply clueless. They spend much of their stage time browbeating the helpless wife (the reporter unaccountably urging her to tell her story on national television, which would blow his exclusive), and by intermission you’re at least as fed up with governmental bureaucracy and media insensitivity as—well, as you were before you came to the theater.
Perhaps guessing that this is all going to play unpersuasively in post-9/11 D.C., director Shirley Serotsky allows everyone to overdo, including set designer Nick Vaugn, who has placed an elaborately unnecessary and overstuffed wall of shelving behind the playing area. The director also chains her hostage to the wall before the audience enters the auditorium, but she lets him unhook himself at intermission, as if she’s lost interest in the device. And she mounts a pair of slide shows, projecting one on the shelving (which renders it more or less indecipherable) and the other on a retractable screen (after turning on bright fluorescent lights all around it so that it’s hard to see, too). If there’s a method to her madness, it escaped me.CP