Garrett Harris 2:03 p.m., May 24
In recent blogs, Lamb's Players artistic director Robert Smyth looked back on the company's most "important" productions, not favorites, necessarily, or best sellers, but shows that moved the theater forward.
One of his choices remains one of my favorite local shows: Christopher Marlowe's Dr. Faustus, staged in 1982.
Marlowe wrote it around 1594 (and based it, some say, on a real historical figure). Dr. Faustus is so brilliant he has the equivalent of doctorates in Law, Medicine, Logic, and Divinity. And he's bored stiff. He wants to learn the secrets of nature, so he turns to magic. He conjures up Mephistophilis, servant of Lucifer, and makes a pact. For 24 years of supernatural powers, Faustus will sell his soul to the devil.
Because he's convinced "hell's a fable."
Mephistophilis warned him that the powers would be "frivolous." And in some cases a sham, as when Faustus makes love to Helen of Troy ("Was this the face that launched a thousand ships and burnt the topless towers of Illium?") and she turns out to be a demon ("her lips suck forth my soul!").
Twenty-four years zip by like the trailer to a B-movie. After committing enough of the Seven Deadly Sins for an eternity in Hell without parole, Faustus spirals downward.
Stagings of the play, which are rare, amp up the spectacle: smoke, mirrors, drooling, pitchforky ghouls. On Lamb's old, in-the-round stage at National City, Smyth pared away showy externals and looked inside the relationship between Faustus and Mephistophilis. Each was convinced he was the supreme authority.
Jame's Webb's Faustus displayed cocksure, above the law certitude that, in the end, he would somehow beat the rap. Webb complicated him by combining a genuine desire for knowledge with a world-sized, "overreaching" ego.
James Goffard's eerie Mephistophilis, who resembled a soft-spoken Friar Tuck, made two unforgettable choices. He moved slowly, with extraordinary patience, as if evil is in no hurry, even if it takes 24 years.
The other choice was just as haunting: Mephistophilis gently pleads with Faustus to change his mind, that salvation is still possible ("Think's thou that I who saw the face of God/And tasted the eternal joy of heaven/Am not tormented with ten thousand hells/In being deprived of everlasting bliss?"). Goffard spoke as if brother-to-brother. He made evil appear compassionate.
Both actors headed toward the finish line convincing spectators that they would win. Then in an amazing moment, the lights didn't go out, or even dim. Goffard swung his brown cape over Webb. When he swung it back, Webb was gone.
Down a trap door below Goffard's feet, it turns out, but who knew?
It wasn't just the visual that lingers - 30 years later. The production made the stakes so convincing: the unstated but underlined meaning of two words when placed together - "eternal" and "damnation."