Struggling with the sexual depths of hell

If Hell is a party, then what is Heaven? Christopher Marlowe’s The Tragical History of Dr. Faustus, produced by the University of Calgary Drama Department, is a wild rollercoaster ride through an underworld completely saturated with alcohol, violence and a whole lot of sex.

Michael Petersen plays Dr. Faustus, a highly educated and respected man who is lured by the temptations of fame, fortune and power that can be gained through the use of magic. This leads him to make a deal with the devil. If Faustus agrees to sign his soul over to Lucifer for eternity, he will in turn receive the use of Mephistophilis, Lucifer’s servant, for 24 years.

The opening scene in particular, with its perverse and twisted images of the underworld, caught my attention immediately. The chorus, a writhing mass of devils representing Mephistophilis wearing mismatched scraps of clothing, appears and tells the audience the story to come. They make it clear that after his stint of fame on Earth, Faustus’ life will undoubtedly end in pain and suffering in hell. The scene is a haunting barrage of sound, lights and action in which the devils set the wild atmosphere.

Director Frank Totino updates the classic play and leans heavily towards a sex-filled and wild party-like image of hell. Every time the devils appear on stage, they are engaged in sexual or violent acts. This is surprisingly effective at creating a sense of mysterious sexual lure towards magic.

However, the over-the-top atmosphere of these scenes often overshadows the spotlight that should be on Faustus. It should be Faustus’ personal struggle against evil that we examine, but instead you find yourself wondering when the next party-in-hell scene will steal the spotlight. It’s difficult to understand why hell is portrayed as a huge sex and alcohol party in which devils are doomed to have wild fun for all eternity. The only time that the devils suffer severe pain is when Faustus is finally stripped, chained and carted away to hell. One has to wonder whether he will become just like the other devils who drink and have sex for an eternity.

The only big disappointment of the play is its lack of emotional depth in the examination of Faustus’ internal struggle against evil. The good and bad angels, acting as Faustus’ conscience, appear several times to convince Faustus to listen. Even when the good angel is speaking to Faustus, he never seems to take her seriously. It is not until the very end of the play that we catch a glimpse of Faustus’ struggle against his greed for Mephistophilis’ power.

Overall, The Tragical History of Dr. Faustus is a polished, beautiful, disturbing and haunting production that isn’t afraid to push boundaries. The amazing cast of over 35 inject the whole production full of energy. If you have ever wondered what hell might be like, this must just be it.

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