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THEATER REVIEW / 'FAUST' : No Germanness : Theater Arts Group offers a lighthearted, comic, entertaining, farcical version--one divested of its tragedy and importance.

October 11, 1990|ANN VAN DER VEER

Touted as a rare opportunity to see both parts of a seldom-staged German classic, the UC Santa Barbara production of Goethe's "Faust" will leave purists and professionals disdainful. The version at the school's Main Stage Theater, presented by Theater Arts Group, is a lighthearted, comic, entertaining, farcical "Faust," divested of its Germanness, its tragedy and its importance.

Substance is nearly always sacrificed for entertainment value, as though the subject were so dull that patrons would have to be chained to their seats unless adolescent high jinks were happening onstage, at all times.

God is a clown; a wrinkled old woman plays Helen of Troy; the Devil comes on as a cute, red-eyed hand puppet; there are Halloween witches and neo-punk transvestite dancers.

Why is there a potluck of accents? Why is the dramatically critical promenade scene in Martha's garden staged at far stage right, when the unusually wide span of the stage renders it so remote that a third of the audience must crane their necks to see it? Is the intrusive racket of hard-soled shoes hitting the stage, in the ensemble scenes, deliberate or an oversight? When the Heinz 57 Varieties costuming includes 1990 college kids wearing their own clothes, how can theatricality do anything but fizzle like an embarrassed balloon?

Rather than evoking faith that a studied eclecticism is at work here, these disparities jar and leave the tinny taste of amateurism--of an idea unfinished, of a homunculus better left bottled.

If this were a little ragtag community group trying its ambitious best, one could overlook a few things, but this is TAG, which in the last nine years has built a well-deserved reputation for high production values and fine acting.

Some of the fine acting is still evident. Simon Williams is completely in control of his sardonic Mephistopheles--there is some delightful nuance of speech and gesture--and it's a marvel to see an actor who can strut while limping on a cloven hoof.

Robert Egan's polished and studied Faust is enhanced by his beautiful stage voice--sending ringing Shakespearean tones clearly to the last row. He just seems to be in the wrong play. Geoff Pywell stands out as Wagner, Faust's assistant, though the sudden introduction of an English accent is unaccounted for.

One might as well try to take the American out of "Huckleberry Finn," as delete all references to Germany in "Faust." There are other odd deletions. Such as the scene where Faust decides to end his life and actually lifts the poison to his lips.

Here, in Peter Lackner's adaptation, when Faust meets Mephisto, there seems scarcely any reason why he should wager his soul, except as a lark. Faust appears mildly bored--instead of desperately tortured with nothing more to live for.

The lack of dramatic tension is furthered by Stuart Adkins' utilitarian translation, which uses terms like "every which way," "wholesale and retail," "cash box" and "Daddykins." There is little rhyme, no poetry; the significant change of style that differentiates Part One and Part Two in the original is missing. It clangs on the ear the way the New American version of the Bible does to those who prefer the King James.

Though cutting a 22-hour play to 3 1/2 hours can never end in a satisfactory product, the greatest loss seems to be Goethe's grand design in the mystical mirroring of Part One and Part Two--here the second part simply becomes a string of unrelated incidents with no deep mystical or artistic tie to the first part.

At the end, a big green paper monster spitting Halloween devils and stage smoke from its maw is pushed on stage to collect Faust's soul, but spectacle and bathos do not make up for the loss of poetry.

That's it in a nutshell. Rob "Faust" of its mystery and its poetry and you also rob it of its soul.

WHERE AND WHEN

'Faust" plays at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and at 2 and 8 p.m. Sunday, at the Main Stage Theatre, UC Santa Barbara, followed by a two-month tour to Northern and Southern California cities. Translation by Stuart Adkins. Stage adaptation and direction by Peter Lackner. Presented by TAG, Theatre Artists Group. Tickets $8 general, $7 students. For further information call 893-3241.

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