ICCT’s ‘Doctor Faustus’ offers a chance to pause and think

The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus

Online—Friday, April 9 - Sunday, April 11

Cast members in Iowa City Community Theatre’s ‘Doctor Faustus.’ — Emily McKnight/ICCT

Not every theater company would undertake a play written in blank verse in the 16th century, a play that is fabled for having driven early audience members into fits of insanity. The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus (Christopher Marlowe) is that play, and Iowa City Community Theatre (ICCT) is not just any theater company.

The central characters are Doctor Faustus played by Elinor Levin and Mephistophilis (Mckayla Sturtz), a messenger from Lucifer. Faustus exchanges his soul for 24 years in order to gain knowledge, magical powers and fame. Lucifer (Nick Kilburg) brings to life the seven deadly sins and presents them as entertainment. Faustus is unmoved and unwarned despite this presentation, as he pushes forward, using his powers for ludicrous and wasteful practical jokes and demonstrations. 

Through a series of adventures, including tricking a Pope and taking Helen of Troy as a lover, Faustus squanders his time and is intent on the ruination of his own soul. 

Aside from the central characters, this play is largely ensemble-based with actors playing multiple characters. ICCT has staged this thought-provoking  play via Zoom, employing backgrounds to set the scenes — when characters are in the same place, they have the same background. The intended effect is then to create a continuity in setting. 

Director Will Asmus also makes good use of filters, as a virtual sort of makeup artistry, to create various effects on some characters. The entire ensemble knows the lines and cues, and if they seem a bit melodramatic in spots, consider the play itself. 

The text of the play is challenging, one might argue even more challenging than Shakespeare, as the blank verse of this play does not allow for the rhyming that sonnets and couplets offer a Shakespearean cast and audience. The topics of the play are challenging, as well. When it comes down to it the questions are: How do we use our lives? What do we give up to achieve our goals? And, ultimately, how worthwhile are those goals?

If you have grown tired of binge watching cooking shows and crime dramas, Doctor Faustus is the remedy. The text and actors combine together to demand audience members to consider and reconsider the deals they have made as they have crafted their lives. There is plenty to talk about after the virtual curtain drops. 

The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus will run for three Zoom performances, April 9 and 10 at 7:30 p.m. and April 11 at 2 p.m. The readings are free (registration required), with donations accepted at time of registration.