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Ari Brickman in FAUST/How I Rose
(Photo © José Jorge Carreón
The devil was cast out of heaven for inventing love -- or, at least, that's the way Mephistopheles (Mónica Dionne) tells it in John Jesurun's FAUST/How I Rose, now receiving its U.S. premiere in a flawed production at BAM's Harvey Theatre.

Jesurun's adaptation of the Faust legend is a radical departure from previous versions. We do not see the famous pact that Faust (Ari Brickman) makes with the devil. Rather than a scholar, this Faust is an international diplomat who's smartly dressed in a black suit and who flies around the world in airplanes. Jesurun has also chosen to make Mephistopheles the focus of his script, and we often feel more sympathy for the devil than for the rest of the characters. The time period of the action seems to be that our contemporary era, although time is somewhat fragmented in the actual playing of the scenes. Lyrics from popular tunes such as the Beach Boys' "Help Me, Rhonda" and a slew of Beatles songs are interpolated into the dialogue, creating odd disjunctures and unlikely resonances. However, the richness and lyricism of Jesurun's language is ill served by director Martín Acosta. Too much of the time, the humor and poetry of the text is lost.

The cast, a bilingual ensemble from Mexico, may be able to bring out the script's nuances in the Spanish language version of the play, which they are presenting once during their week-long run (the show is being produced in conjunction with Mexico Now, a city-wide arts festival focusing on contemporary Mexico). But in the English language version, which is to be done for the remainder of the performances, the show is hindered by a flatness in the overall delivery of the lines. The worst offender is Brickman, who hollowly declaims Faust's speeches, at times raising his voice to a shout but never successfully bringing out the emotions behind the words. Guillermina Campuzano, as Faust's confidant Phaedra, similarly fails to convey a sense of character. As Gretchen/Rhonda Kindermoerd, Carolina Politti has some good moments but not enough of them, while Manuel Domínguez as Mephistopheles' assistant Abdulá is unable to make his lengthy monologue amount to much. Emilio Savinni is amusing as the Judge, adopting a British accent that seems slightly incongruous, but Dionne's Mephistopheles fares best; the actress's richly textured Mexican accent enhances her line delivery, and she has a vibrant energy and an appropriately mercurial presence.

Unfortunately, Dionne is unable to get much out of Brickman, and their scenes together do not have the spark necessary to make the co-dependent relationship between Faust and Mephistopheles believable. It's unclear why Faust fascinates the devil so, since the actor playing him fails to ignite audience interest. The most striking scene in the play is the trial of Gretchen -- who, as noted above, also goes by the name of Rhonda Kindermoerd. Faust becomes her defense attorney while Mephistopheles argues for the prosecution. In a bizarre turn of events, the ghost of Baby Kindermoerd (Manuel Domínguez) speaks from the grave. The scene is a farcical delight, filled with absurd but sparkling dialogue. And though all of the players don't enact their parts as well as they might, the scene still works.

Jesurun, who also contributed set and video design to the production, utilizes a large white, rectangular platform as the primary playing space, with another such platform set at an angle and suspended above the stage. The two surfaces serve as screens for the artist's video projections, which at times converge with the words that the characters speak and at other times are simply abstract images that set a certain tone but do not correspond directly with the spoken text. The effect is mesmerizing. In fact, the images are often more interesting than what's happening on the stage, so I found myself watching the screen as much as -- if not more than -- the live action.

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