Nothing freaks out artists more than the prospect of losing their souls. That's probably why the story of Faust has inspired such a huge amount of output from so many poets and composers and playwrights over hundreds of years: At some stage in every creative career, there's always the temptation to choose a quick buck over the long slog of budding artistry. That choice isn't always as fraught as it may seem; many artists manage to fund their creative endeavors with the occasional corporate gig. But there's always the lingering fear that easy money is a deal with the devil — which is all fun and games until Mephistopheles drags your sellout ass to hell.
Though it has taken many forms over the years, the general arc of the Faust legend remains more or less the same. The title character is usually some kind of scholar or magician who makes a pact with Satan in exchange for power or money or fame; in most cases, that pact doesn't end well. No one knows exactly how the legend got its start, though versions began circulating in Germany during the 16th century. More polished treatments followed: An English translation eventually made its way into the hands of the playwright Christopher Marlowe, who wrote his erratic but engaging Tragical History of Doctor Faustus sometime in the 1590s. A few centuries later, Goethe wrote his own Romantic version of the story, rendering it as a two-part closet drama in which Faust eventually triumphs over Mephistopheles. Charles Gounod's operatic treatment, written in 1859, rightfully remains one of the world's most popular operas (in fact, you can see it at San Francisco Opera starting in June). The 20th century's most notable contribution to the legend is Thomas Mann's 1947 novel, Doctor Faustus, a work that reimagines its title character as a syphilitic genius in spectacular decline — a parable of the rise and fall of modern Germany.
An Apology for the Course and Outcome of Certain Events Delivered by Doctor John Faustus on This His Final Evening, now making its West Coast premiere in a production by Performers Under Stress, is an excellent addition to the literature that's collected around the legend. I just wish that this particular production were more worthy of Mickle Maher's gorgeous script. The one-hour play is so powerfully written — and so surprisingly funny — that it requires an actor who can handle the richness of the language without missing the little stabs of humor throughout. Here, however, we have a lead who pitches his performance to the balcony, even though he's performing for a few dozen people in a little room off Sixth and Howard streets. It's over the top, and it just doesn't work.
In Maher's version, Doctor Faustus (Scott Baker) is at the end of his life, haunted at all times by the presence of the demon Mephistopheles (Valerie Fachman). He has kept a diary during his 24 years in the company of this demon, but the diary isn't what you'd expect: It's full of hatch marks, not words. Stranger yet, the hatch marks don't represent anything — not days or hours or any other unit of measurement. "They're not some kind of secret code," he tells us. "They don't count anything but themselves." The diary "records nothing but the fact that the pen touched its pages."
Nonetheless, he tells us, the book remains his "life's work." This is quite a departure from the Faust of Marlowe or Goethe or even Mann: This is Faust after the absurdists and existentialists have gotten their hands on him. In Maher's version, even a pact with the devil can't save us from the paralyzing tedium of life, nor can it bring meaning to our meaningless attempts at immortality.
The script offers both a sharp sense of humor and a deep sense of menace, but director Rick Razo manages to convey only a little of each. Yes, he gets a few good laughs out of the audience, particularly when Faustus treats theatergoers to free cans of Budweiser and bags of potato chips. ("In times to come," Faustus explains, "they will call this beer the King.") But the playwright's sense of humor often gets trounced by Baker's declamatory delivery — the actor simply doesn't have the light touch necessary for the material. He has trouble managing the play's darker moments, too: We're expected to feel a palpable sense of doom as he approaches his final exit, yet I felt no particular sense of foreboding. That might have something to do with the fact that Fachman's Mephistopheles — who remains silent throughout the entire play — seems less menacing than eccentric. Decked out in a top hat and gloves, her face slathered in glittery paint, she appears to be an amateur magician rather than a minister of fate. In short, neither actor quite manages to evoke the sense of otherworldly, darkly comic dread that the script demands.
In Marlowe's version of the story, demons drag the title character to hell; in Goethe, the angels escort him to heaven while Mephistopheles looks on in dismay. Maher chooses a third way: His Faustus simply shows himself out the back door. "In theater," he tells us, "the death that happens offstage is the most real." That's a line worthy of a great playwright. Now all it needs is an equally great production.