It is only fitting to start with an honest admission of cultural and educational ignorance, mixed with a bit of shame: I have never read Marlowe’s Doctor Faust nor Goethe’s Faust. I mean, I know the elevator pitch (man sells soul to devil in exchange for worldly goods and knowledge) and I know that a Faustian bargain is not one that a person should make. But I was worried that this lack of deep knowledge would prevent me from grasping the larger points and symbolism in the piece. Thankfully, the story (if not its language) is easy to grasp: while called a prelude, the events of this production take place after Faust has died. Sent to clean up his study, the lovabley crude Kasper (puppeted by Julian McFaul), comes across one of Faust’s books which summon demons to lure him to sell his soul. In sharp contrast to Faust’s conduct, Kasper manages to get a one-day free trial of the powers of hell, uses them to help his friends, and then returns unscatthed to his wife and incessantly mewling children. Tempted but not corrupted, Kasper’s story provides a counter-narrative to the original, postulating that love, even imperfect love, might indeed be better than riches or earthly knowledge.
Two things are very fortunate with Open Eye Figure’s production: 1) The characters and their conundrums do not require previous knowledge and 2) Faust’s moralistic themes mix well with puppetry (as the use of puppets in 15th and 16th century morality plays can probably attest). There is an element of slapstick with this production which could not be achieved with human bodies -- the wicked are not only punished morally, their puppets are often punished physically. It is the physicality of the puppets that make the show successful. They are pulled, prodded, dropped, fucked (by other puppets), inflated, and drug across the miniature stage. Their features, to a puppet, are grotesque. Even the lovely Helen of Troy is a skeleton body that has a sunken face and strange breasts appended to it.
“That the world of things can open itself to reveal a secret life--indeed, to reveal a set of actions and hence a narrativity and a history outside the given field of perception--is a constant daydream that the miniature presents. This is the daydream of the microscope: the daydream of life inside life, of significance multiplied infinitely within significance.”
The above is one of the more lyric passages from Susan Stewart’s modern classic On Longing, pg 54 (emphasis in the original). I can’t help but seeing a connection to Open Eye Theatre’s relationship to A Prelude to Faust: A Puppet Epic and Stewart’s meditations on miniatures as distinctly cultural (not natural) creations: puppetry traps in the miniature, part of the reason the small universe of the puppet’s stage functions is its scale to the human body. The four puppeteers/performers and a wonderful band ensemble lovingly crowd around and contort their human-sized bodies around this stage meant for puppets, a constant reminder that they are responsible for and yet somehow intruding upon the puppets’ world.
Nowhere is this sense of scale more present than in the moments where human bodies become the focal point; there are disembodied hands that write backwards and forwards on chalk boards and lovingly open and close small doors. During the Everyman interludes, performer Julian McFaul actually climbs into the tiny stage. His body, so comically large next to the rest of the set, still manages to feel lost. The things he reaches for (knowledge embodied by apples, tome-like books, and quills) don’t seem to reduce his hunger and he goes deeper and deeper into the small world of the stage.
This is the third time that Open Eye Theatre has done A Prelude to Faust with Michael Koerner’s haunting and memetic music, and it is rumored to be their last! Go and see it before you miss your last chance! It runs until November 11.
*Erin McNeil works for the Walker Art Center, which originally commissioned this piece in 1998.