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Last January might have been the devil’s best opportunity to snare Dan VanHoozer’s soul. He had been serving as an assistant director for Washington Shakespeare Company’s production of King Lear, but the show was suddenly dropped due to a cast member’s health scare. VanHoozer soon found himself idle, a prime candidate for devil’s work.
“I was drunk at a party, basically,” says VanHoozer, 28, of the circumstances that led to the Pabst and Popcorn Hour theater company’s adaptation of Christopher Marlowe’s play The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus. The party was a birthday celebration for a sound designer he had collaborated with in Firebelly Production’s 2006 staging of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. At the party, the cast and crew were cajoling VanHoozer to begin working on a new theatrical project. The following Monday, VanHoozer says, he woke up with an epiphany: He needed a copy of Faustus—and a lot more beer.
VanHoozer, of Southwest, acknowledges that Marlowe’s early-17th-century morality play—about material vice and virtue written in alternating blank verse and stiff prose—isn’t exactly the sort of source material that grabs the attention of the casual theatergoer. “For someone who doesn’t like theater, it’s almost not fair to make someone sit through a museum piece. References, dialogues, and jokes that are 400 years old,” VanHoozer laments. “Maybe you don’t like classical theater. But you damn sure like beer and popcorn.”
The free popcorn and two bottles of PBR distributed to “the damned” with every ticket, however, aren’t just a gimmick—they’re an aspect of the play. During the performance, Lucifer—a cane-carrying, Tom Wolfensuitnwearing huckster (Josh Drew)—entreats sinners in the audience to crack open a beer as a way of selling Faustus on wickedness during his temptation.
Marlowe originally drew an audience by splicing his lofty verse ministrations on sin and redemption with comedic scenes in which regular working-class stiffs would discuss how they’d go about using Faustus’ satanic gifts. “[Marlowe’s] comic scenes are about hierarchy in society. Marlowe had someone else write the comedy scenes,” VanHoozer explains. The director and his cast, who fleshed out the comedy in the show, retained the bawdy spirit of the original with, for example, pantomime blowjobs. “What I handed [the cast] was a scaled-down version of Marlowe’s text. Then we added Jesus jokes,” VanHoozer says.
The character of Faustus had to be transformed as well—though his fundamental appetite for power (and much of the verse) has been preserved. In the updated text, Faustus hot-dogs at a competitive-eating championship and wins an audience with King George (Bush). Played by Brian Lee Huynh, Faustus is “that guy you knew in college who studied way too much, that guy who never left the dorm,” VanHoozer says. Despite a few deviations from the abbreviated text, Huynh’s geeky Faustus follows the original faithfully; he’s a nerdy virgin who gets more power than he knows what to do with, a brilliant reject the lusty Mephostophilis (Adrienne Nelson) easily hoodwinks.
“We wanted to make Marlowe heretical,” says VanHoozer.
“We wanted to make it blasphemous again.”
The easiest way to get there: copious amounts of alcohol. Still, that much beer—even PBR—adds up. Following the show’s initial run at Palace of Wonders in mid-July, VanHoozer made a few calls seeking sponsorship for its limited runs at Goethe-Institut Washington and the District of Columbia Arts Center; the group received word that Pabst was supplying 40 cases for the production. VanHoozer says the deal came like the salvation Faustus never found.
“They don’t return your calls at all,” he says. “Then, eleventh hour—‘Here you go. Here’s some beer.’”
The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus runs at 5:45 p.m. Friday, July 27, and 9:30 p.m. Saturday, July 28, at the Goethe-Institut Washington, 812 7th St. NW. $15. (866) 811-4111.