Few legends are as timeless as that of Faust. You could argue that the theme goes back to Adam and Eve, who have everything they should want in Garden of Eden but still thirst for fruit from the Tree of Knowledge. Johann Faust himself emerged in Germany sometime during the 16th century; by 1587 a German prose volume devoted to his life had appeared, and by 1592 Christopher Marlowe had written The Tragical History of Dr. Faustus, the first great portrait of the man who sells his soul to the Devil in exchange for knowledge and power. Goethe’s sublime dramatic poem inspired Schubert’s "Gretchen am Spinnrade," Delacroix’s Faust illustrations, Berlioz’s La damnation de Faust, Schumann’s Scenes from Goethe’s "Faust," Liszt’s Faust Symphony and Mephisto Waltzes, Gounod’s opera Faust and Boito’s opera Mefistofele. The first part of the 20th century saw Mahler’s Eighth Symphony (the last hour of which sets Goethe’s final scene), Thomas Mann’s novel Doktor Faustus, Ferruccio Busoni’s opera Doktor Faustus, and the F.W. Murnau silent film Faust; since then we’ve gotten Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse in The Band Wagon and Elizabeth Hurley as Mephistopheles in Bedazzled.
Each generation reinvents its own Faust; Faust 2002 is Pilgrim Theatre’s attempt to bring the legend into the 21st century. Pilgrim describes the piece as having been "inspired by Goethe, Marlowe, Stein, Sands, Blake, Byron, Murnau . . . " I don’t know what Sands the company is talking about, or how Faust turns up in William Blake’s work, though Urizen has clearly contributed to the old-fuddy-duddy image of God that informs Mephistopheles’s prologue. Court Dorsey delivers this monologue from a metal scaffold set up at the Tremont Street end of the BCA’s Cyclorama and lit by candles at its top corners; "based on Goethe, Marlowe, Blake, and Byron," and describing us as creatures locked into the prisons of God’s divided self, it’s a powerful introduction. The audience is then led back into the Cyclorama proper, where the remaining six (plus an interlude) of the "Seven Deadly Scenes" are enacted.
Certainly there’s room to update the story, to strip it to its essentials. What kind of world is this we’re imprisoned in? What kind of God created it? Assuming we have a soul, should we entrust it to that God, as opposed to selling it to the highest bidder? What will Lucifer and Mephistopheles give for it? Or if we have no soul, why be bound by any concept of morality? Why shouldn’t Faust take whatever he can get?
That was the opportunity for Faust 2002; but despite the 21st-century trappings (roller-blading, cell phones), the Pilgrim production seems stuck back in 1592 with Marlowe and, especially, in 1808 and 1832 with Goethe. The Pilgrim Faust is frustrated as a medical man who has no answer to the plague, and then as a research scientist. A shadow-puppet "poodle" (barks like a Doberman) intimates the arrival of Mephistopheles; as in Goethe, Faust is unable to comprehend the explosive, radical, paradoxical opening of John’s Gospel (so how smart is he?). Eventually we get two Fausts, one female (Susan Thompson, who takes it from the beginning), one male (Kermit Dunkelberg, who turns up when it’s time to seduce Monica Gomi’s Gretchen), and they perform doppelgänger dances of desire and despair (Richard Colton, of Spencer/Colton Dance, is listed as "dance/music consultant").
After the "interlude," the remainder of this 110-minute intermissionless evening whizzes by: "Faust, Inc." crashes faster than you can say Enron; "Helen, or the Ideal" gives us Chris Crowley as a dancing male Helen of Troy; "Faust Utopia" is a building project that rolls over the Old Couple (played by one actor in a transcendent two-faced mask). The open-ended finale finds both Fausts and Mephistopheles back on the metal scaffold, which rolls toward the audience as the lights go out.
Less would have been more. The prologue opens with fluffy white angels singing traditional gospel ("Anchored in Love Divine"); that’s followed by a bewildering musical potpourri, everything from Bill Monroe to Henryk-Mikolaj Górecki to Charlie Parker and original compositions by Dorsey and Dunkelberg. It’s chaotic. And though Pilgrim’s visuals are transfixing, the pastiche text makes nonsense of the sophisticated thinking behind Marlowe’s work and Goethe’s. Riffing on one of Western civilization’s most serious themes is not the way to bring Faust into the 21st century.