A terrific bit of symbolism can be witnessed in Independent Shakespeare Company’s presentation of “The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus.” The vain, greedy title character already lives in twilight as he prepares to sell his soul to the devil. Then, while he fritters away the power that he bought at such a terrible price, he is engulfed ever more resolutely by darkness.
Typically, such an effect would require a battery of lights and precise computer plotting, but when you begin your performances at 7:30 in the summertime outdoors, Mother Nature provides it for free.
Director Antony Sandoval works an impressive array of techniques into his fleet, 80-minute interpretation of Christopher Marlowe’s late 16th century play, but it’s the existing magic -- in the text and in the outdoor venue at Barnsdall Art Park -- that succeeds above all.
Sandoval has immersed himself in the physically expressive techniques of Tadashi Suzuki and similar artists. For “Faustus,” this manifests itself in clownlike playfulness.
Wait a minute. Clownlike? Playful? This is a tragedy, isn’t it?
Well, consider this: Marlowe, a contemporary of Shakespeare, wove comic characters into his story. They mirror and therefore emphasize the mistakes made by Faustus. Sandoval merely extends their humor to the rest of the play. His approach lightens the mood and makes the lesson-teaching more palatable, but it also drains the play of some of its theatrical -- and moral -- effect.
The most inventive twist is to cast a woman as Mephistopheles, the agent sent by Lucifer to tempt Faustus and secure his soul. Bernadette Sullivan’s exquisitely sculpted face is given porcelain pallor, with deeply colored accents at her eyes and lips. She’s a fashion-model dream for J. Paul Boehmer’s forever chortling, oh-so-full-of-himself Faustus.
Humorously, she begins to chafe as Faustus whiles away his life in frivolous pursuits, and they bicker like an old married couple.
The good and bad angels who intermittently materialize to counsel Faustus are women dressed in corresponding white and red lingerie, like Victoria’s Secret advertisements, and Faustus’ fellow scholars are outfitted with blank-eyed glasses that make them seem dimly impervious to any knowledge that truly matters. Masks and a couple of puppets are now and again deployed.
Needless to say, given all this waggishness, the clowning is particularly well done, especially by Danny Campbell as Faustus’ servant, who grumbles and growls as he waddles around on bowed legs.
The stage is bare but for piles of Faustus’ books. Yet here too, Mother Nature contributes, because the hilltop playing area possesses a commanding view of a city where, some would argue, Faustus’ bad bargain is made every day.
Where: Barnsdall Art Park, 4800 Hollywood Blvd., L.A.
When: 7:30 tonight; see independentshakespeare.com for full schedule; in repertory with “Twelfth Night” and “Henry IV”
Ends: Aug. 24
Price: Free but reservations recommended
Contact: (323) 836-0288
Running time: 1 hour, 20 minutes