Student-produced Faustus play uplifts queer themes, honors historical text

Courtesy of Jubee McCorvie

Fir Acres Theater presented “The Tragical History of DoctorFaustus”, a queerfolk twist on the 16th century play by Christopher Marlowe, on the evenings of Nov. 16, 17 and 18. Directed by Paige Rose Cabral ’24, this semester’s student produced work was a brilliant adaptation of a classic, in line with last fall’s production of “Hamlet” which featured many of the same actors and artists.

The play follows Doctor Faustus, a scholar who has exhausted all academic subjects and turns to magic as his next educational pursuit. He summons a demon, Mephistopheles, and exchanges his soul for 24 years of control over Mephistopheles in order to be taught magic. The audience  follows this timeline until the end of the 24 year period when Faustus must descend into hell. 

In the program, Cabral notes the queer messages of the play that this production spotlighted.

“We know historically speaking that Christopher Marlowe was queer … Now, some four hundred years later, a nonbinary lesbian with the help of extraordinarily queer companions are bringing to life a trans story of discovery,” Cabral wrote. 

Cleo Lockhart ’25 played the titular Doctor Faustus, which was a culmination of their long history with the play.

“I first read this play in my freshman Words class. I loved it the second I read it,” Lockhart said. “Then obviously, last year, ‘Hamlet’ happened and it was the best theater experience I’d ever had up until that point, in terms of building community and building a piece of art together. So after it was done, I was really curious whether that same group of people would be doing a similar thing.”

Lockhart explained that it all began one day when they and a few other friends, including Ash Prodromou ’25 and Percival Walter ’25, who had been in “Hamlet,” started discussing the possibility of making another show. 

“Instantly, we’re making the Spotify playlist, making the Pinterest board, throwing it all out there. Initially, I was like, ‘Yeah, I would love to be like a part of this show in any capacity. I’d love to be on the production team or something,’” Lockhart said. “Months later, of course, (Percy) is talking to me like, ‘I can’t wait to see what you do as Faustus’ and I said ‘what?!’”

Lockhart didn’t expect to play the lead role, but soon enough the show planning was in motion and the organizers knew they would be perfect for it. 

“Suddenly I had this role that sounded so incredibly fun in a play that I had deeply cared about from the moment I first read the text. I’d already written several essays about it, and had already deeply analyzed this. You want me to play the lead in this? That means the world to me. And then that was what happened,” Lockhart said. 

Prodromou, the costume designer and Lucifer (in the show), also recalled the show’s conception. 

“We first started talking about it right after Hamlet. Cleo, Percy and I were like, ‘We want to do another. What can we do?’” Prodromou said. “Initially, the idea that we came up with was that in the same way that Hamlet was a pop punk version, it was like an indie folk version of Doctor Faustus. Obviously, we shifted away from that a little bit. But initially, that was where my input came in. I know these bands, and I know this sound, and I can help with that.”

Prodromou also explained the intentionality behind costume choices, and the immense work that went into planning, organizing and creating costumes alongside the tailor, Lola Ecker ’25.

“For costuming, I’ve done a lot of work, over the summer building Pinterest boards with Lola and then building Faustus and Meph costumes, because those were all custom made pieces for the show,” Prodromou said. “Lucifer is the only one in mostly black, which is traditionally how you do demons. We put everybody else in pastel colors, and we were talking, ‘Why is this? What’s the reason behind it?’ And the reason is that they’re mourning hell or the loss of heavenly power.” 

During the rehearsal process that began early this semester, many actors were struck by the devised approach. Devised theatre is where an ensemble makes creative choices based on collaborative, often improvisational methods. Many actors in Faustus had taken the devised theatre class at Lewis & Clark and found that what they had learned informed the creation of Faustus. 

Walter played Mephistopheles while also taking a role as the lead artist and dramaturg. 

“I feel like since taking Devised, a lot of my perspective about theater time management changed,” Walter said. “I feel like I had a better handle on (things like) how long does this take to block? I’m always constantly learning more and more how collaborative theater is, and how it very much takes everyone in it to create anything at all.”

Prodromou echoed this sentiment, specifically around the movement sequences that were incorporated into the show.

“There was a lot more movement than we were expecting. We had blocked out like moments where compositions would be helpful and a lot of transitions are going to involve movement, and in between acts are going to need movement,” Prodromou said. “And it became this almost devised piece, which was really fun.”

The choreography made for an extremely visually captivating show, especially since every character had their own unique physicality. Transporting fantastical elements to the stage can be difficult, but moments of demonic possession, for example, were staged brilliantly, nearly a dance. This effect harkened back to the original inspiration of a musical adaptation.

“A huge part of it was the framing device that we had on the piece of exploring queerness and folk music, and all of the specific movement work we were doing framed the show immediately,” Lockhart said. “While it was the original text, the play immediately put it in a different context.”

This idea of taking an old text and recontextualizing it is central to understanding the beauty of this version of Doctor Faustus. 

“I’m always learning more about those old words. Are they worth hearing again? And every time it’s yes,” Walter said. “They’re such gifts, these old plays, because they’re so overfull. So you choose the story (you) want, like Faustus has a whole other world of plot in it that we just didn’t use, like this emperor of Germany and all of this political stuff that served the story, but we didn’t need it. We needed a shorter show, and we knew the themes that we wanted to highlight.”

Since the production team had to edit down the lengthy original text into a shorter script, they got very familiar with the original authorial intentions. 

“My approach to that old text is a historical one, to boil it down to one word. The way that those old texts were written was for a specific style of theater that was supposed to be the most accessible thing. It was written to be consumed by common masses,” Walter said. “So if you try and stage it in a way that is staged for the wealthy elite, then you do a disservice to the text and it’s not understandable.”

Some of the historically-rooted methods that Walter mentioned were universal lighting, where the audience is lit the same as the stage, performer directed address, where characters directly to each other instead of to a distant point, thrust staging, where the audience sits around three or all sides of the stage, and limited set and props.

Carrying hundreds of years old text into the modern age requires striking a balance between honoring tradition and bringing in new creativity—which is exactly what this Faustus production does. 

“All of the themes and all of the things that I care about, the deep hearts of all of these stories, we are bringing our new souls to them, new bodies and our performance, which are things that they never had. [But] it’s still their story. It’s their story and our story,” Walter said. 

Lockhart elaborated on the aspects of the original text that were highlighted in the adaptation.

“A lot of words and sections took on double meanings in our context of the show. There was a lot more gender dialogue and descriptions of hell. One thing we were focusing a lot on was nature; this text talks about nature and the stars so much.,” Lockhart said.

They also spoke to the creative intersection of devising and working with historical texts.

“There would be a question from the text that we would pose (or) that our director would pose, and we would create something based on that,” Lockhart said. “A lot of our version of the play came from our responses to those questions.”

In contrast to Lockhart, Prodromou and Walter, Jamie Kushnick ’26, who played the Pope and all seven of the Deadly Sins, had no connection to the play prior to being cast in it. 

“I knew it was like a really famous play, the whole devil and angel on your shoulder thing that comes from Faustus. I knew the basic plot, but I had no inkling of like, ‘I want to play this.’ I was just excited to see where I would fit in,” Kushnick said. 

Kusnick commented on the unexpected amalgamation of roles that he was tasked with playing.

“I knew the Pope was there for comedic relief and that’s it, so I just knew, ‘Okay, I’m going to be a funny old man,’” Kushnick said. “But when I was handed the Seven Deadly Sins, I think I saw somewhere beforehand that there was a section of lines for each sin in the script. I was like, ‘Oh, that’s cool. They’re gonna cast somebody as lust and they’re gonna cast somebody as wrath and they’re gonna cast somebody as pride.’ And then I got the email and it said, ‘Hello Jamie. Here’s seven guys.’”

Indeed, Kushnick lived up to all seven of the “guys,” as well as the Pope. 

“The Seven Deadly Sins, we must have run like 50 times. And it looks right. The work paid off, for sure,” Prodromou said. 

Looking back on the experience, Kushnick recognizes how valuable it was. 

All these actors recalled profound growth in different ways throughout their journey into discovering their characters, but they also repeatedly emphasized the role of teamwork and collaboration. 

“I’m really happy about everything about it. The cast was delightful. The narrative was something that I hold really close to my heart and the way that we built it made it even closer. And I think that’s gorgeous,” Lockhart said.

As likely his last student produced work put on at LC, Walter gave a final reflection on the meaningful core of the show.

“The show is about hope,” Walter said. “No matter how dark it is, because it is so dark right now, there is a light somewhere. That’s what hope is. It’s not that it’s brighter than other things or that everything will be alright, it’s just that there is a light in at least one place. That was the heart of the show to me, and that is what I wanted to give people.”

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