When Gertrude Stein created "Dr. Faustus Lights the Lights," her whimsical play based on the Faust legend, she made the invention of the light bulb the brilliant central metaphor for the human assumption of godlike powers. And in the director Robert Wilson's staging of the 1938 play, which opened a three-night run at Alice Tully Hall on Tuesday as part of Lincoln Center's Serious Fun festival, the director has dug deeply into his bag of lighting tricks to illustrate the concept with some striking visual effects.
There are scenes in which the cast of English-speaking German actors from the Hebbel Theater in Berlin sit perched on bars of light that move slowly up and down and in seesaw motion through the air. Windows appear at the rear of the stage, change shape and color, then shrink and vanish. Banks of light bulbs float onto the stage and flare and dim with the changes in the language's emotional temperature. And when one character is bitten by a viper, a crimson crevice rips through the black rear curtain to the accompaniment of piercing electronic shrieks.
But if Mr. Wilson illustrates certain moments of the text in flashy ways, as is his wont, he doesn't attempt to impose a conventional interpretation on the work, which was conceived as a musical libretto but found no composer. His essential technique has always been to create a semi-abstract landscape for a piece, letting the text speak mostly for itself, while evoking mystery and surprise from the friction between the words and his broad theatrical concepts. And with Stein, whose open-ended exploratory sensibility and use of repetition foreshadowed modern-day Minimalism, he is playing against a sensibility that is closer than usual to his own. While the 90-minute work does not have the epic scope of "Einstein on the Beach," it is still solid, middle-level Wilson that will please his admirers and bore those looking for theater with more literary content.
Because the Stein play is a frolicsome, Cubist-inspired look at the Faust legend, Mr. Wilson has given the principal roles multiple interpreters. The title role is shared by three actors (Thilo Mandel, Christian Ebert and Thomas Lehmann). There are two Mephistos -- one in red (Heiko Senst), the other in black (Florian Fitz) -- and three Marguerites (Katrin Heller, Wiebke Kayser, and Gabriele Volsch).
The main characters are upstaged in this production by two subsidiary figures who provide light comic relief. Martin Vogel, wearing a frowzy red wig and a white gown and mechanically raised to eight feet tall, portrays a country woman who appears brandishing a sickle. He bears a marked resemblance to the performance artist Ethyl Eichelberger in one of his diva roles. Karla Trippel, a diminutive actress who wears a man's suit and has her hair in a short, floppy ponytail, plays an attention-seeking dog who midway in the show takes an old-fashioned vaudeville turn singing Stein's words.
The overall style of the acting, music and costuming suggests a modernist pastiche of German Expressionism. The actors, who resemble the slinky, chalk-faced urbanites in the paintings of Klimt and Schiele, drone their lines in a robotic, phonetically pronounced English. The director has assembled them into a series of slow-motion tableaux that are as visually striking as they are emotionally blank and stripped of social ramification. Where the mood of German Expressionist paintings of the 1920's and 30's suggests twisted secret lives festering underneath blithe hypersophisticated facades, the mood on the stage, as in so much of Mr. Wilson's work, is predominantly one of childlike wonder.
More than any other element, it is Hans Peter Kuhn's musical score that defines this mood. Using electronics and what often sound like toy instruments, the composer has created an aural environment that often suggests a Minimalist parody of Kurt Weill-style cabaret songs, written for children and interspersed with sound effects that range from animal noises to breaking glass. Mr. Kuhn's music, much of which has a light oom-pah-pah lilt, is a clever musical answer to Stein's language of insistence. Stein likened the repetitions of human speech to a frog croaking or a bird singing. And in "Dr. Faustus Lights the Lights," the composer's burping and squawking little ditties match her dry verbal wit.Continue reading the main story
Peter asked me to do a 12 scene summary/synopsis for the artists for our show. While I did not do a synopsis for pages 20-25, I have the rest of the show summarized. I hope this will help those who are confused by the language Stein uses within this show. Page numbers are based off of the revised script Peter released which you can find here: link.
The pre show features the actors playing the parts of boy and girl (not to be confused with boy and dog). In this scene they are flirty, playful, and confident. They will be trying to get audience members to interact and use social media on their phones during the show. They are very beautiful people and some of the dialogue will be sexual. Flirty interactions such as the girl dropping herself into someone’s lap and saying, “Hey baby, why don’t you take a selfie with me?” are entirely possible.
2. “The First Interaction between Doctor Faustus and Mephisto”
(Page 1 and 2, revised script) In this opening scene the audience sees Doctor Faustus and Mephisto’s first interaction together. Doctor Faustus had sold his soul to the devil to learn how to make electric lights. He accuses Mephisto of lying and tempting him. Mephisto replies by saying that while the devil deceives, he never lies. Doctor Faustus rejects Mephisto, saying he doesn’t care that he sold his soul because he doesn’t believe that he has one anyway. The lights begin to burn brightly.
3. “The Dog and Boy”
(Pages 2-6, revised script) In this part of the script we meet the dog and boy. The dog for the most part only says, “thank you.” Doctor Faustus tries to get rid of them both saying, “Let me alone… Dog and boy let me alone oh let me alone.” They do not leave and instead tell Doctor Faustus about Marguerite Ida and Helena Annabel (MIHA). They argue over her name, Doctor Faustus saying that he knows her name is not Marguerite Ida and Helena Annabel because he knows everything (“I know no no no no no nobody can know what I know I know her name is not Marguerite Ida and Helena Annabel”).
4. “Meeting Marguerite Ida and Helena Annabel (MIHA)”
(Pages 6-9, revised script) In the scene with Dog and Boy we get the following description about MIHA: “yes her name is not Marguerite Ida and Helena Annabel and she is not ready yet to sing about daylight and night light, moonlight and starlight electric light and twilight she is not she is not but she will be.” When we actually first meet her MIHA is wandering around the woods talking to no one in particular. After she gets stung by a viper a country woman tells her to find a doctor to cure her. So she sets out to find Doctor Faustus so he can help cure her.
5. “Marguerite Ida and Helena Annabel (MIHA) meets Doctor Faustus”
(Pages 10-13, revised script) MIHA shows up at Doctor Faustus’s house and asks him if he can cure her. Doctor Faustus tells MIHA (and the dog and boy) that he sold his soul and to leave him alone because he doesn’t care if she dies (“all who can die and go to heaven or hell go away oh go away go away leave me alone”). The boy asks what difference does it make if Doctor Faustus cures MIHA or not, he (Doctor Faustus) is still going to hell. Doctor Faustus is still oppositional and says that while he can cure her he will not.
6. “The Death of Marguerite Ida and Helena Annabel (MIHA)”
(Pages 13-14, revised script) a continuation of section number five, above, after Doctor Faustus still refuses to cure her MIHA begins to die. The stage directions describe this as follows: “There is silence the lights flicker and flicker, and Marguerite Ida and Helena Annabel gets weaker and weaker, and the poison [gets] stronger and stronger.” At the last moment Doctor Faustus saves MIHA’s life stating, “You are not dead. Enough said Enough said. You are not dead.”
7. “The village gossip”
(Pages 14-16, revised script) The townsfolk of the nearby village gossip with each other about how Doctor Faustus saves MIHA from the viper sting/bite. It’s the talk of the town, a “miracle.” They question the people/events surrounding what happened. Asking things such as, “Would a viper have stung her if she had only had one name,” “How do you know how do you know that a viper did sting her,” and “Doctor Faustus sold his soul….did she sell her soul [too].” They recount what happened in a flashback-esque scenario with MIHA and the viper.
8. “MIHA’s beauty recounted”
(Pages 17-18, revised script) This scene is a continuation of the townsfolk’s gossip. They are still recounting what happened with MIHA. The townspeople describe the setting of this portion of the scene as, “…the lights are bright like the sunset and she [MIHA] sat with her back to the sun…” She’s still pure (“See how the viper there, Cannot hurt her. Nothing can touch her…”) and beautiful in everything she does, lit up with “A very grand ballet of lights.” It brings many suitors by land, sea, and air.
9. “Man from Over the Sea”
(Pages 18-19, revised script) We meet the Man from over the sea for the first time. He a suave and handsome man who comes for MIHA (his “pretty pretty pretty dear”). When she first meets him she is a little bit flustered and unbelieving that such a handsome man would come for her. He tries to convince her to leave her life behind (“…throw away the viper throw away the sun throw away the lights until there are none…”) and leave with him but she declines/faints before a decision can be made.
10. “Mephisto convinces Doctor Faustus to kill”
(Pages 26-27, revised script) Doctor Faustus tells Mephisto that he feels like he sold his soul for no reason. He sold his soul for the electric lights but no one cares/is interested in the lights. He says that if he should go to Hell it should be with a bang (“I would rather go to hell be I with all my might and then go to hell oh yes alright”). They get into an argument with each other about who deceived who. In the end Doctor Faustus, who is still set on going to Hell, asks Mephisto how to get there. Mephisto tells Doctor Faustus that he should, “kill anything.”
11. “The murder of Dog and Boy”
(Pages 27-28, revised script) Faustus resolves to go to Hell by getting the viper to kill the boy and the dog for him. Before they die, Faustus tells them of their impending death and they both thank him before being struck down by the viper (“Thank you, the light is so bright there is no moon tonight I cannot bay at the moon the viper will kill me. Thank you”). After the deed is done, Mephisto condemns him to Hell but tells Doctor Faustus to take MIHA with him.
12. “The last pages”
(Pages 28-29 , revised script) A lot happens in the last two pages of the script. Doctor Faustus demands that MIHA goes to Hell with him (“you know I can go to Hell and I can take someone too and that someone will be you”). Not wanting to go to Hell, she sinks back (faints) into the safe arms of the Man from over the sea. Afterwards, Mephisto goes up to Doctor Faustus and tells him that he is going to Hell. Doctor Faustus sinks into darkness and the boy and girl begins to sing. The both of them symbolizing our future generations.