First things Faust

Shotgun Players' Faust, Part 1 at the Ashby Stage is whole unto itself
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The gettin's Goethe

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Bay Area writer-director Mark Jackson has been rightly hailed for his original scripts, especially since the rollicking ingenuity of 2003's The Death of Meyerhold. But his dialogue with established or classic plays has been just as intriguing to follow. Here, strict fidelity to the text has not always proved a recipe for success. Indeed, it was by tossing out the text completely that Yes, Yes to Moscow — created with Tilla Kratochwil, Sommer Ulrickson, and Beth Wilmurt and one of the best things to happen on any Bay Area stage in 2008 — managed to capture the essence of Chekhov's Three Sisters to a degree most big-budget, straight-ahead productions could only envy. Then again, without changing a word, Jackson brilliantly exploited the kinetic value of Sophie Treadwell's expressionist drama, Machinal, for last year's memorable production with alma mater San Francisco State University. But more recently, cleaving restlessly to August Strindberg's text of Miss Julie in an otherwise skillful production for Berkeley's Aurora Theatre, Jackson teetered near heavy-handedness, the injection of directorial personality often butting heads with Strindberg's tightly wound material rather than entering a productive discourse with it.

That is happily not the case in Jackson's current effort: a sure, compact, and invigorating free-adaptation of Johann Wolfgang Goethe's Faust, Part I produced, like Meyerhold, by Berkeley's Shotgun Players. The "freely adapted" part is no doubt key to the success here, but that implies no reduction of the original. Although the text has been trimmed and jiggered greatly, Jackson's version — alive and lively in rhyming verse — strikes a confident, highly effective balance between his own visually striking exegesis and a deep-seated fidelity to the poetical and dramatic spirit of Goethe's glorious closet play.

Essaying the title role himself with considerable wit and panache, Jackson leads a winning cast in the kind of dynamic, precisely choreographed neoexpressionist production he has made a hallmark of his work. "In the beginning was the act!" is Faust's eureka cry. But the director starts the action in a tense but humorous fit of inaction at the lip of the stage. There Faust, the arch but frustrated rationalist bent on bending nature to his will, vacillates in calling forth the spirit world, standing before a wall of thin metal-framed windows blacked out except for one square patch of moonlight, and bare but for a single glass of magic potion.

Frenetic, verbose, arrogant, and (nearly) fearless, Jackson's Faust dances a tightrope line between jaded hero and willing fool with conjured devil and enabler Mephistopheles (played with a slippery sobriety and quiet menace by the solid Peter Ruocco) standing erect and a full head shorter by his side, all courteousness amid flashes of animal teeth.

The play centers on Faust's tragic wooing (and ruining) of the beautiful maiden Gretchen (an exceptionally deft, completely mesmerizing Blythe Foster), whom Faust meets in that fair field after downing his magic potion. But Gretchen's mother (in a suitably jagged but subtle portrait by Zehra Berkman) guards her daughter's chastity with hawk-like concentration despite being wheelchair-bound, her sharpness accentuated by repeated appearance in profile.

Goethe's Faust — so applicable to our historical moment-of-truth that in lesser hands any treatment is doomed to cliché — has the unparalleled Renaissance man embodying rational, post-Enlightenment humanity in a sobering confrontation with questions of good and evil. A forceful aspect of Jackson's shrewd staging lies in never losing sight of this "embodied" tale. Certainly Faust is enchanted by his own words.

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