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Theater Review

Updated 'Faust' Strikes Insightful Bargains

October 16, 1998|JAN BRESLAUER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Each age, it might be said, gets the Faust it deserves. From the 16th century on, novelists, playwrights and opera composers have gone to the mat with this icon of Western literature, grappling over the nature of good and evil, God and the devil, redemption and condemnation. Indeed, the Who's Who of Faust adapters includes writers Christopher Marlowe, Gotthold Lessing, Heinrich Heine and Thomas Mann, and composers Charles Gounod and Hector Berlioz.

So it should come as no surprise that someone in today's Los Angeles would resurrect the doctor / Everyman / philosopher who sells his soul to the devil for knowledge / power / money / youth. After all, it's hard to think of a more perfectly Faustian environment than today's L.A.--where the cash-fat entertainment industry sits amid a heaven-hell landscape of class polarization.

Fortunately, Empire Red Lip, whose "Citizen Faust" runs through the end of the month at the Los Angeles Theatre Center, resists the impulse toward a facile reading. Instead, the innovative troupe gives the legend an inspired, insightful and, yes, darkly funny working over. A "reconsideration" of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's Faust by John Steppling and Rita Valencia with Wesley Walker, the production is presented by Wolfskill Theater and directed by Steppling.

This is a Faust for the millennial moment--with an inquiry into the nature of evil at the end of a horrific, capitalist century at its core. It's a deceptively simple staging with almost no scenery, costumes credited only to the putatively fictitious Lance Crush and an evocative sound landscape by the venerable Don Preston. The sum is both archetypal and utterly '90s, with more layers of meaning than the doctor has temptations.

God is a sleazebag with a bad dye job. As capably portrayed by Mickey Swenson, he is weaselly, but never without nuance. The single-hoofed Mephistopheles wears a blue sport coat and cravat, and is played (by the frighteningly convincing Rick Dean) as a cross between Quasimodo and something out of the noir shadows of Orson Welles' "Touch of Evil."

These two meet in a prologue to plot the fate of Faust (the excellent Stephen Davies), who first appears as a middle-aged doctor in a silk robe, seated behind a Chinese red cube that serve as his desk. Then Faust and Mephistopheles journey through a range of encounters along the lines of a morality play.

During this journey, they meet an array of characters and spirits played by Swenson and an ensemble of three women (Kathleen Mazotta, Dawn Howard, Susanna Schulten Dean) who appear to have been cast more for their personal idiosyncrasies than thespian talents. And seduced and abandoned, Gretchen is portrayed with sincerity and authenticity by Shannon Holt, who also appears in several other minor roles.

*

* "Citizen Faust,"' Los Angeles Theatre Center, Studio 5C, 514 S. Spring St., downtown. Fridays-Saturdays, 8 p.m. Ends Oct. 31. $10. (213) 620-9229. Running time: 2 hours, 25 minutes.

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