The Art of Experience

I enter the room. Three rows of chairs sit parallel to each other on opposite sides, with a wide and long pathway separating them, a lighted pathway I have to cross to get to my seat. As I sit down, I realize the closeness of the theater props, the claustrophobia of the room, and most bizarrely, the lack of a stage. After waiting a few moments for the play to begin, an actress in a bright lab coat emerges from behind a curtain and steps into the pathway, three or four feet away from me. I then realized where the stage was: I was sitting on it.

Early in the fall semester, the Trinity University theater group performed an adaptation of Getrude Stein’s Dr. Faustus Lights the Lights, a modernist reception of the famous Elizabethan tragedy. Stein’s adaptation is a fantastical and intriguing deconstruction of the classic. The play picks up where the original classic left off with a few twists: a miserable Faustus has to cope with selling his soul to Mestipho so that he could have the power to create electric lights.

The story leaves Faustus to dwell in his misery, accompanied by a boy, a girl, and a loyal dog. The play continues with a woman named Marguerita Ida and Helena Annabel (yes, she is one person), who after spending time in the forest gets bitten by a viper. She then goes to Faustus, begging him to cure her of the poison. After much hesitation, Faustus agrees to help her. However, through his cure, Marguerita now has the ability to produce natural light, as opposed to the electric light that Faustus became so obsessed with. Because of her new talent, she becomes sought after by another man (“The Man from Over the Sea”) and Mephisto.

Dr. Faustus is deliberately disorienting, and embraces this confusion throughout the whole performance. The play captures a fragmented array of allegories and themes, incorporating symbols from the original work itself to allusions from the biblical Garden of Eden. The portrayal of the figures in the play also gives credence to the fragmented flow of the story, with each character played by more than one actor. One of the performers in the play undertook the role of Dr. Faustus, Marguerita Ida and Helena Annabel, the dog, and Mephisto.

The plot is not clear because the plot is not the centerpiece. The actors have many roles because it does not matter who plays which role. The stage does not have a definite area because the stage itself is meant to be shared with the audience.

However, despite the intended craziness, he play’s obsession with repetition brings a balance to the disorienting effects of the performance. The script of the play is filled with repeating dialogue, both in their responses to one another and in their soliloquies. I found the repetition to be calming. Not only does it offer an aesthetic flow of dialogue between the many actors engaging in many roles, it creates a feeling of solace within the play’s disorienting effect. The repetition grounded the reader in the present. But within this repetition, there is one aspect that I enjoyed at the performance I attended: the constant use of second person pronouns. The phrase “you” is continuously repeated throughout the play’s dialogue. But I did not see this phrase as solely referring to the other characters. I saw this phrase as a clear directive to the audience itself.

Thank you, said the dog. Will you? said the boy. Can you? said the woman. These phrases show up constantly throughout the play in an almost fatiguing repetition. But instead of just embedding direction in the dialogue, the word “you” becomes a way for the play to fully engage with the audience’s experience. The reference of “you” had an effect of immediacy, forcing me to understand the actors as people on my plane instead of distant, impersonal set pieces.

This is not the only way in which the performance plays with the audience’s experience. The stage itself becomes the first instance of engagement, with the close proximity of the actors and props immersing the audience into the stage itself. The actors themselves continuously engage with the audience, either by thrusting one of “Dr. Faustus’ lights” (a candle) at a spectator, or shaking one of the audience member’s hands as Faustus’ loyal dog. The lights in the room also form part of the experience, with the constant shifting and changing of the lighting’s direction mimicking the play’s fleeting sense of clarity.

Dr. Faustus Lights the Lights is more of a performative experience than a traditional play. The plot is not clear because the plot is not the centerpiece. The actors have many roles because it does not matter who plays which role. The stage does not have a definite area because the stage itself is meant to be shared with the audience. The atmosphere of the theater room, theatrical lighting, dialogue, and the layout of the stage are all designed to engage with the audience’s experience. In other words, the audience becomes the play.

Part of the appeal of this play is accepting the unconventional. By embracing the play as an unconventional performative experience, I still became exposed to the trappings of a traditional play, but through a unique and admittedly profound aesthetic. With this sense of mind, Trinity Theater’s performance of Dr. Faustus Light the Lights is an intriguing play and an unforgettable experience.

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