Extended Through November 8; Now With Sunday Matinees!
By Venus Zarris
My first exposure to the Faustian legend came by way of the 1960’s film Doctor Faustus, starting Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. I was very young when I caught the end of the film on late night television. My memory of it is more flashbacks of images and the impact of them. It was a lavish Technicolor adaptation of Christopher Marlow’s play, another sexy vehicle for Taylor and Burton to parade their decadent passions to the world.
I remember Burton’s Faustus was fixated on Taylor’s Helen of Troy. His compromise was rooted in that lust of the flesh and the ending culminated in a frightening decent into hell as his deal with the devil was sealed.
Even though this deal contradicted the edicts of fundamentalist Christianity, my personal religious programming at the time, it was haunting nonetheless. Here was a brilliant Doctor who was seduced by the pleasures of the flesh to the point of signing away his body and soul to the Prince of Darkness. If someone so smart could be seduced for the sake of decadence and fornication then we were all vulnerable to the temptations of evil. It was a cautionary, albeit silly, tale that left a tantalizing impression.
Over the decades since then its impact has diminished. Upon adult reexamination of childhood brainwashing, I find my religious foundation to be absurd. Still, the notion of bartering our ultimate resource with something unfathomably evil is intellectually and artistically seductive. In the world of drama, it has the potential for some stunning theatrics or some cheesy fun. What playwright Mickle Maher has accomplished with his revisiting of this story is nothing short of transcendence.
An Apology For the Course and Outcome of Certain Events Delivered by Doctor John Faustus on This His Final Evening, quite simply put, is one of the most incomparable undertakings that has graced the stage. You have a remarkable and brief opportunity to see this complete masterpiece. It will leave an impression on you for the rest of your life. Chicago is a city filled with magnificent missed opportunities; that is to say that you could see something every night of the year and still miss wonderful offerings. You have to acquiesce to this fact but I charge you NOT TO MISS this staggeringly confounding piece of work.
There are no whistles and bells, no opulent costumes or sets, no dazzling special effects. We are led into a dark cavernous basement with only two hanging lights and are then closed in. This is bare bones. Anything else would only diminish, get in the way of the impact of what we are about to cerebrally experience.
In one chair sits a silent Mephistopheles, void of expression or reaction. Across from him stands Faustus. It opens with a silence that speaks more volumes than ten of the finest actors could deliver.
Here is the genius of Colm O’Reilly. In his silence, in his pause, he sets an emotional stage that could not be delivered so resplendently with any other dramatic device. His performance is real. We are sitting with a man only minutes away from an unknowable and unthinkable oblivion.
“You have to make an extra effort when defending the meaningless.” Strikes us early on as a line that will usher in an existential adventure the likes of which we are powerless to avoid.
O’Reilly takes on the perilous plight of Faustus’s examination of his urgently terrifying situation with a skill that is unmatched. He is calm and manic, frustrated and funny, bulldozing and delicate. There is so much weight behind the writing and delivery of every word that we are almost crushed by its significance.
Yet O’Reilly is never heavy-handed. You will be stunned by his unrelenting focus and gentle presence. He makes a completely delicious banquet out of his indigestible predicament. His performance will go down in the annals of your most remarkable experiences.
Only the writing of Mickle Maher eclipses O’Reilly’s accomplishment. His Apology For Faustus stands as an impeccable piece of literature that you would read and never imagine performable. Maher’s writing could stand in room with the achievements of MacArthur Genius Grant recipients and make them look infantile. He enters into the dark and isolated personal chaos of our psyche and illuminates that space with paradigm shifting examination.
Instead of focusing on the visceral trade off of Faustus in the 1960s film, that is the lust of the flesh, his monologue script zeros in on the intellectual prize. Maher describes a glimpse of what Faustus has seen in his brief but unbelievably overwhelming 24 years since the bargain was struck. Rather than orgies and raves, rather than power, wealth and physical satisfaction, Faustus has spent his wishes on a time traveling pursuit of knowledge, the surface of which can only be scratched. Maher imagines experiences that almost make the trade-off bearable, if not for the crushing notion of imminent annihilation.
He ultimately imagines a reality with no need for righteous or evil gods that bat us back and forth in a cosmic game of cat and mouse. In his creation of the explosive and bombastic moments preceding damnation, he subtly and quietly blasts open a potential for ultimate redemption. Maher’s Apology For Faustus is an incarnation of the most resplendently animated exquisite corpse.
Together Maher and O’Reilly create a combination of brilliance that is alchemical. They leave a permanent tattoo on your mind, like surviving a tornado, being bitten by a Great White Shark or achieving a perfect orgasm. It taps into something beyond theater or literature. It is transdimensional, ripping an intellectual hole in the rational fabric of perceived space, time and experience. It is the stuff that universes spring from on other planes of existence.
Sound too fantastical to be true? See for yourself.
Theater Oobleck encompasses the most remarkable aspects of Chicago theater. If you see no other play, see their incomparable production of An Apology For the Course and Outcome of Certain Events Delivered by Doctor John Faustus on This His Final Evening. Time is running out as it will sell out quickly so call to make your reservations now. 773-347-1041
4 + STARS
(“An Apology For the Course and Outcome of Certain Events Delivered by Doctor John Faustus on This His Final Evening” has been EXTENDED through November 8 at the Chopin Theatre, 1543 W. Division. 773-347-1041)
Extended Through November 8; Now With Sunday Matinees!
Production photos by Kristin Basta