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Arts & Culture

COVID & the Arts: Augustana Updates Faust

Augustana College

Live theater has returned to Augustana College in Rock Island, with a new feminine spin on the classic tale of Faust bargaining with the devil. 

“The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus” by Christopher Marlowe stars students Lauren Larson as Faustus and Alyssa Frazier as Mephistopheles, and it's directed by senior theater major SophiaRose Brown. It was performed live last weekend at the Brunner Theatre Center’s Blackbox Theatre, and a filmed version (done by Augustana-based Fresh Films) will be offered at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 7. Those viewing online will receive a Zoom link after registering for tickets.

Doctor Faustus has mastered every scholarly subject, so what is left to explore? Magic? Necromancy? When offered everything she desires for 24 years and a demon at her command, the temptation is too great to resist.

Credit Augustana College
Alyssa Frazier, left, as Mephistopheles and Lauren Larson as Faustus

The normal “Doctor Faustus” has over 20 actors, but this one has nine. Director Brown says she had to cut characters and at least one scene. The original Elizabethan language remains, but she switched the genders of Faustus and Mephistopheles, and it’s set in a timeless period, with some modern touches. 

Typically, Augustana students get three chances to direct studio shows each year. And freshman year she directed the Holocaust-themed play “And Then They Came For Me.” 

“I love Elizabethan theater – I love Shakespeare, I love reading Marlowe plays. When I read it in Dr. Popple’s Classical Ages in Theater class, I had never read it before and I fell in love with the play and just how fun it is. We watched the Globe version and it’s just a stunning performance, and I decided that in any way, shape or form, I had to have Mephistopheles come to life, whether that would be playing it or directing it. I needed to have Mephistopheles come to life as soon as possible because I just love that character.”

She thinks the devilish role has confidence from being immortal and knowing nothing can ever happen to him.

“He’s very sure of himself, but also very playful at the same time. He knows how to work people into getting what he wants. It’s such a wonderful -- and it also has to do with the language – the language is just so beautiful and gorgeous, the way he manipulates people into doing what he wants them to do.”

Brown wanted to flip the genders of the main characters, partly to modernize the play.

“When I was reading it, I thought of how wonderful it would be to bring the female perspective to these characters. And have this classic piece, always played by men – who always do a wonderful job – but allowing strong-willed women to play these roles. How amazing and confident it would make these actors.”

Marlowe had romantic relationshipswith many of his male friends, and the play features a romantic relationship between the two primary characters.

“I wanted to keep the queer theory aspect of this show, and how easy it is to apply it to this show, but bring it over to women. In Elizabethan England, you hear a lot of stories about Marlow and Shakespeare and the male friends they had relationships with. You hear a lot about male homosexuality, but you never really hear anything about the female side of it. Just kind of bringing a light to a female relationship just adds another layer to the whole story.”

“As a queer person, sitting there and seeing how these two interact with each other, whether they wanted to imply it or not, the dialogue and the way these two characters interact, it’s very clear that there’s some sort of an attraction there. It’s very familiar and I think playing into that is extremely easy.”

For “Doctor Faustus,” performers and audience members wore masks at all times, and audience members were six feet apart – cutting the theater capacity to 27, compared to a maximum of 80. The school’s guidelines don’t allow off-campus people in campus buildings, so the live show was only for college students, staff, and faculty.

“Everything is a blessing in disguise; you always figure out new ways. I think the six feet apart seating will be interesting, because it isolates each audience member, so they don’t have anybody sitting directly next to them, and can fully immerse themselves in the show and not have somebody whispering over to them.”

Brown says wearing masks forced the actors to express more with their eyes and body physicality. She had to work on vocal projection especially, and space the actors out more than usual in blocking.

Tickets are pay-what-you-can tax-deductible donations; you can reserve for free as well. Proceeds will be split with Argrow's House of Healing and Hope, a Davenport organization that provides free services to female survivors of domestic abuse or sexual violence. Tickets may be reserved at www.augustana.edu/tickets.