A play is like kind of like a recipe. You take some ingredients, you mix them all about, you let it bake, you serve it up and you hope that everyone (whose taste buds are as individual as finger prints) enjoys it. Now, the great thing with recipes is you don’t need to follow them exactly in order to produce a tasty treat and often times you can combine flavors you wouldn’t think would go together and they result in a totally palate pleasing dish. The San Jose Rep’s handling of The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus had some surprising ingredients and imaginative presentation to be sure, but I couldn’t help feel like I’d bitten off a little more than I could chew as an audience member.
For the sake of this culinary metaphor, let’s just say that the source material, Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, is a classic chocolate cake. When the Rep serves it to you, there’s no doubt that the plating is really quite spectacular. An overly generous piece of decadent, devil’s food cake, sitting majestically on one of those fancy asymmetrical plates, dotted and swirled with sauce and ganache, a scoop of exotically-flavored gelato balanced atop it. It is a thing of beauty, not a gold dust speck or stacked geometric wafer out-of-place. Shadow puppets and projections, vibrant costuming, a phenomenal sound design and ambient score, the most creative and dazzling stage wizardry delights from the start. Live camera feeds and puzzle like set pieces that use every vertical and horizontal inch of the stage are among the best adornments, while some of the overly stylized, digital projections were among some of my least favorite elements. On the whole though a fresh and stimulating approach. At first, yes there is plenty of reason to want to take a picture of this dessert and Instagram the living daylights out of it. That is, until you dig in past the clever staging, down to the core of this theatrical dessert.
As chocolate cakes go, it’s a good cake. Good story, solid acting and though the language, which is the original “Shakespearean” era prose, can be overwhelming at first, you realize after just a few bites that you don’t need to taste every single phrase to understand what’s going on. Don’t panic if you can’t taste every layered flavor profile for all the technical icing. There’s a lot of that tech icing going on and it’s tasty. Maybe, even tastier than the cake itself.
And, as we devour this feast, it slowly starts to appeal a bit less. As the wafers are toppled and the gelato melts, the initial awe of the visual no longer holds our interest entirely. We start fighting a bit. We know we should stop consuming, but we keep shoveling it down our gullet. And, at the end of the night, that ginormous, caloric piece of theater is done. Even though we were overly stuffed and a tad bit sleepy for most of the second half, we still ate the whole damn thing. Even good cake is going to cause problems if you have too much of it and I was probably done 20 minutes after intermission.
I said before you don’t need to follow a recipe it in order to produce a tasty treat however, if you don’t like the majority of the ingredients in it, you probably won’t like the end result. There are some people that might be down right allergic to this production, but I wager there’ll be just as many that think this is a refreshing and inventive take on a classic. Your enjoyment is going to depend more on your own personal taste than it will on the commendable merit of this production. And it is commendable, despite my metaphor, this play is not a piece of cake.
I fell right in the middle of these two groups of people. I certainly see the merits of the deconstructed pieces, but I was a bit disappointed with the over indulgent serving size. This play wasn’t meant to be your grandmother’s chocolate cake for sure, so I don’t fault it for trying to be something it’s not, but I guess I was challenged once I started enjoying it to see more than the presentation shine through to the final lines. Perhaps a reduction of some kind could have increased my own personal enjoyment of this piece. Perhaps just a smaller helping would have helped. 3 ½ jewels out of 5 in the review tiara for a beautiful and tempting piece of eye candy that just proved too rich for my own sensibilities. The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus plays through June 2nd at the San Jose Rep.