We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.
Theatergoers will have a new respect for gauze after witnessing the myriad ways the Stanislavsky Theater Studio creates Heaven, Earth, and Hell with a few strips of iridescent fabric. That something so light and ephemeral could be used to signify such dark things becomes all the more significant as the play’s human characters lose themselves in the pursuit of false happiness. It’s easy to have sympathy for the devil, played brilliantly by co-director Paata Tsikurishvili: In the end, Mephistopheles is the only honest one in the bunch. Faust, an erudite scholar with a bad case of ennui, played by co-director Andrei Malaev-Babel, isn’t a likable character to begin with. You can blame author Goethe for some of that, though Malaev-Babel’s lackluster performance doesn’t help. Self-absorbed, always dissatisfied, thoughtless, and insincere, Faust wants to rule the world, then gets bored with his power. He falls in love with an innocent young virgin, then blames the devil when she goes insane. He promises to give his soul to the devil if ever he utters a word of regret, then utters said word—but still gets to go to heaven. Choreographer Irina Tsikurishvili, who plays Gretchen, the tragic target of Faust’s affection, with understated grace, won a Helen Hayes Award for her choreography for the original production. The focus on physicality, a trademark of the Stanislavsky company, buoys the ambitious production. Several of the play’s most visually striking scenes involve Gretchen, and, of course, lots of fabric. In one scene, an evil spirit (played by Irina Koval, a newcomer with striking looks and strong stage presence) lures Gretchen away to a high cliff and proceeds to steal her soul, symbolized by a length of white gauze. The gauze then becomes Gretchen’s newborn child, which the bewitched girl throws into the sea (more gauze), only to suddenly realize with horror what she’s done as the waves carry the child, and her innocence, away. In a reference to Orpheus, Faust insists that Mephistopheles take him to Gretchen, now in prison. Once there, he finds her caught in a web of madness, represented by ribbons of fabric crisscrossing the stage. The ribbons gradually become tethers, and she dances like a marionette under Mephistopheles’ control. The supporting cast members seamlessly perform numerous roles, from wicked henchman and evil spirits to mesmerizing waves and even inanimate furnishings, with impressive precision. —Holly Bass