If it were not for David Greenspan, These Very Serious Jokes would be painful to sit through. The actor, who plays the role of Mephistopheles here, has a vibrant theatrical presence and a quirky stage personality that makes nearly everything he does wonderfully alive. Unfortunately, even he cannot salvage Target Margin Theater’s woefully misguided adaptation of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Faust.
David Herskovits, who usually manages to put an innovative and engaging spin on the plays he directs, seems content here to simply quote other experimental theater directors in a hodgepodge of stylistic influences that never coheres into a compelling artistic vision. The set and several bits of stage business are reminiscent of a Richard Foreman production. The use of microphones to accentuate softly spoken dialogue is a common avant-garde technique, popularized by the Wooster Group and other downtown theater groups. The metatheatrical device of actors commenting on what lines were cut during the rehearsal process is something Herskovits has done before, as has Greenspan in his own playwriting efforts; while it’s funny the first time around, this trick has much less of an impact on the third or fourth.
The production seems almost purposefully amateurish. Kaye Voyce’s costume design puts most of the actors in street clothes supplemented by cheesy accessories like fake halos and wings. The exception to this is Greenspan’s wardrobe, as it seems the devil sports stylish suits. I’m sure there’s a concept at work here but it never fully materializes.
The majority of the actors deliver their lines in loud voices and with overexaggerated mannerisms; they try so hard to be funny that they become tedious all too quickly. Will Badgett, as Faust, fares a little better, though he too often seems to be declaiming his lines without understanding their underlying meaning.
Douglas Langworthy’s new translation of Goethe’s Faust is serviceable, yet it seems to sing more on the page than in the actors’ mouths. He includes both the dedication and the prelude at the theater, which are cut out of most productions of the play — and for good reason. While the dedication is nicely delivered in soothing, sensuous tones by the underutilized Purva Bedi, the prelude is hardly worth preserving; although it establishes the aforementioned metatheatrical device that Herskovits tries to exploit in his production, it’s performed rather abysmally by Yuri Skujins as The Producer, E.C. Kelly as The Playwright, and George Hannah as The Actor. If the prelude was supposed to provide comic relief, then Herskovits really should have worked on the actors’ comic timing and delivery.
These Very Serious Jokes only covers a portion of Faust; it’s the first installment in a multi-year Target Margin project devoted to the text. One hopes that, before the next installment is presented to the public, the company members will rethink some of their more problematic choices in order to better serve a worthy play.