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REVIEW: Doctor Faustus Lights the Lights

by Rebecca M. Alvin

In selecting Gertrude Stein’s Doctor Faustus Lights the Lights, the Provincetown Theater has demonstrated their willingness to take on a challenge. The piece was written in 1938 as a libretto, but was also likely the beginnings of Stein’s novel Ida. While clearly referencing Faust (both the original German legend and Christopher Marlowe’s 17th century play The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus), Stein’s version has an elusive, complex nature that the cast, under the director of Tristan DiVincenzo, embraces fully.

The set consists of an overload of visual and aural technology that is almost overwhelming. The cast speak their lines into microphones in front of video cameras, with the monitors facing the audience, so we experience the show as both live and mediated. Stein’s work centers on Doctor Faustus (Runn Shayo), who has sold his soul to the devil Mephisto (Jody O’Neil) in exchange for being able to invent the electric light. In modern times, this “electric light” is translated into technology, and we understand this as a Faustian bargain we have all made. As a consequence, we are overloaded with technology, just as the stage is. Up in the far left corner, a large screen shows loops of films by Kenneth Anger, (the 1960s-70s underground filmmaker whose films, such as Scorpio Rising, Rabbit’s Moon,  and Lucifer Rising married homoeroticism with a fantastical, occult sensibility). Below and to the left of Mephisto is a small monitor with his image and below to the right of Doctor Faustus is a medium-sized monitor with his image. The screen collage is completed with a large screen backdrop that features loops of black-and-white films depicting a variety of sinister images.

It is an intense experience, to say the least. Although it clocks in at only about an hour and a half including intermission, the dark, poetic text provides for an unusual theatrical structure that keeps your attention with its tense beauty without much space for contemplation during the play. Although not entirely immersive in the sense of an interactive play, the overall form does feel all-encompassing and difficult to synthesize in the moment. It is in the aftermath of the play that the truth of it becomes real.

The performers in this particular work have the challenge of the rhythmic nature of Stein’s text, as well as the more technical issue of performing both for the camera and for a live audience. Shayo is particularly adept at riding this line and giving performances that are both filmic and theatrical somehow. The sound design by Erica Giokas and video elements by Jamie Casertano are equally significant here. Although the Anger films, for me, pushed the production over the line and became quite distracting, the overall heavy presence of technology (including a hilarious pile of peripherals and cables lying on the ground, which was  a nice touch) in the production brings home the message. It also provides a unique theatrical experience that brings Stein’s work into the 21st century with a bang.

Doctor Faustus Lights the Lights is performed at the Provincetown Theater, 238 Bradford St. Thursdays through Saturdays, 7:30 p.m. through May 14 and Sunday, May 8, 2 p.m. This production contains nudity. For tickets and information call 508.487.7487 or visit

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Ginger Mountain

Ginger Mountain (MS Communications Media, BA Fine Arts/Teaching Certification K-12) has been part of the graphic design team at Provincetown Magazine since 2008. Ginger has worked as a creative director, individual contractor, and freelance designer with clients representing many areas —business software, consumer products, professional services, entertainment, and network hardware to name just a few — providing creative layout and development of a wide range of print media content. Her clients ranged from small local businesses to large corporations and Fortune 500 companies, from New Hampshire to Georgia

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