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These Very Serious Jokes
by Les Gutman
With These Very Serious Jokes, Target Margin presents the first installment in what it describes as a multi-year project of presenting Goethe's monumental masterwork, Faust. It's a reasonable thing to do: Goethe spent virtually all of his adult life writing it; one ought not rush the effort to comprehend it.
Yet, looking at Carol Bailey's set for Target Margin's first volley into the depths of Faust may prompt some purists to bolt from the production, sight unseen. It boasts a hodge-podge of detritus worthy of the most over-stuffed of second-hand stores and fronted by a frame constructed of 2x4's. This could easily lead one to conclude that what will be on offer will be (so to speak) a blasphemy. More than any prior work by Target Margin I've seen, it also conjures up the theater of Richard Foreman.
Surely, it doesn't suggest a sober take on Goethe's monumental masterwork. But that would be a premature judgment, and probably a misapprehension of Goethe's "Serious Jokes" (they're his description) as well. Douglas Langworthy's translation (too faithful to require the label, "adaptation"), which is set in (largely) blank verse, may strip the language of its Teutonic density, and under David Herskovit's direction, may add all varieties of humor, but it doesn't remove the material's substantive weight.
This could be viewed as a good or bad thing, but on balance here, it's good. The slice of Faust undertaken may well be its most easily comprehended (and familiar). It begins with a large quantity of prefatory material: a Dedication, which remains fairly obtuse; a Prelude at the Theater (a bit of 18th Century meta-theater that informs Target Margin not atypical approach); and a Prologue in Heaven, in which Mephistopheles makes his bet with God that sets the play in motion.
What follows in this installment is roughly half of the "First Part" of Faust, during which the title character (Will Badgett) is introduced, Mephisto (David Greenspan) presents himself (first in the form of a black poodle, the rendering of which here is better left to seeing than having described), the pact between the two of them is made and Mephisto sets out with Faust. It ends just as Faust has set his sights on Margarete (Purva Bedi) and tells his newly-acquired servant "you have to get her for me!".
Herskovits and his designers assault us with images and symbols, some explicable (David Greenspan in a bright red suit through the second half of the show) and some not (some cast members wearing blue latex on their index fingers -- the sort of thing one counting money might wear; I'm not sure what they are called; my theater companion suggested "finger condom"). By the time we reach the stupendously realized Witch's Kitchen, we have surrendered to the production's sensibility fully.
The cast does exceptionally well by the material. Greenspan is a perfect choice as Mephisto, as is Will Badgett as Faust (we find him in pajamas, with a very ill-matching robe). Given much opportunity for caricature, neither falls in the trap. The show also boasts a most-impressive bit of casting sleight-of-hand toward its end, which also is best left to be seen rather than revealed.
So, yes, the devilish Target Margin has made a bargain with us, and, yes, we will dutifully return in years to come to see its story play out.
Mendes at the Donmar
At This Theater
Leonard Maltin's 2003 Movie and Video Guide
Ridiculous!The Theatrical Life & Times of Charles Ludlam
Somewhere For Me, a Biography of Richard Rodgers
The New York Times Book of Broadway: On the Aisle for the Unforgettable Plays of the Last Century
6, 500 Comparative Phrases including 800 Shakespearean Metaphors by CurtainUp's editor.
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