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Doctor Faustus

Classical Actors Ensemble
Directed by Joseph Papke

In a classic 1993 episode of The Simpsons, Homer Simpson sells his soul for a doughnut. It seems ridiculous until you realize that, in one of the episode’s many source texts, Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, the eponymous protagonist’s price for his own soul is a 24-year opportunity to play practical jokes on the Pope and conjure up mute images of dead celebrities (now practically de rigueur at music festivals and awards shows) — exploits worth not much more than a bit of fried dough.

It is this tragically absurd element of Marlowe’s play that comes to the fore in the Classical Actors Ensemble‘s current production, directed by Joseph Papke. You don’t need be immersed in 16th Century theodical debates to appreciate the story of a man who pays a great price for knowledge and power and then finds himself thoroughly wasting those gifts on frivolous nonsense, and Papke and his collaborators tell this story with a refreshing straightforwardness and respect for the text.

First among the reasons for the production’s success is the brilliantly calibrated acting of Michael Ooms in the title role. In Ooms’s hands, Faustus is a nervous, twitchy nerd whose foolhardy pact with Lucifer brings him a temporary sense of self-assurance before he sinks into ennui at the squandering of his gifts and then fear and regret as he comes to terms with his fate. Meanwhile, Faustus’s foil, Mephistopheles, is brought to colorful life by Arthur Moss. Giving the servant of Lucifer a Southern accent and a preacher’s cadences could easily have come off as a cheap shot, but Moss conveys Mephistopheles’s bitterness at his own exclusion from heaven with such sincerity that we come to see him more as Faustus’s fellow sufferer than his tormentor.

Ooms and Moss are ably backed by a supporting cast who tend to play up the comic aspects of their roles, mostly minor characters who come and go over the course of the play’s episodic narrative. The production’s modern-dress approach allows for such amusements as Ethan Bjelland and Nicholas Nelson’s delightfully Eurotrash sorcerers Valdes and Cornelius. Also notable is the music; as per usual with Classical Actors, members of the cast and crew perform both incidental music and popular songs between acts, but compared to other shows of theirs I’ve seen, the flow seems more natural here, with horn arrangements by Robb Krueger and Nelson lending a jazzy edge to the proceedings.

Altogether, Classical Actors hits the right notes with their take on Marlowe’s play. It’s rooted in the worldview of the 16th Century but accessible to a modern-day audience, funny but not campy or cynical, and thoughtfully executed by a cast and crew who seem to share a collective spirit of investigation and invention. Doctor Faustus plays in repertory with Shakespeare’s The Tempest at the Minneapolis Theatre Garage through Nov. 1.

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Eric Prindle

administers Bad Entertainment. He is also an attorney who leads a team of legal marketing copywriters at FindLaw. He is not Eric Prindle, the mixed martial arts fighter.