Drag Me To Hell

Richmond Shakespeare readies “Doctor Faustus” to make his famous deal with the devil.

Christopher Marlowe’s “Doctor Faustus” was such a scandalous play in its day that it was believed to have the power to summon the devil.

In his 1632 polemic against theater and actors, Puritan author William Prynne claimed that the devil himself had appeared onstage during a production “to the great amazement of both the actors and spectators.” Other contemporary accounts attest to the play’s evocative properties; Elizabethan actor Edward “Ned” Alleyn was said to wear a cross to ward off demons when he played Faustus.

This week, local audiences will see for themselves whether Richmond Shakespeare’s production of “Doctor Faustus” can garner Satan’s attention.

Based on the classic German legend Faust, the play tells the story of Faustus, a man of low birth who quickly obtains his doctorate of theology and essentially learns all there is to know of the Western world during the Renaissance. Wishing to further his pursuit of knowledge, he turns to black magic and attempts to conjure a devil. When the demon Mephistopheles arrives, Faustus trades his soul in exchange for limitless power during the rest of his time on Earth.

“For 24 years he’ll be served by Mephistopheles and provided all of the wisdom and power he wants,” explains James Ricks, Richmond Shakespeare’s producing artistic director and director of the show. “He kind of fritters it away. He educates himself on some things, but ultimately gets seduced by pulling parlor tricks for the emperor and messing around with the pope and trying to embarrass the clergy.”

While “Doctor Faustus” is considered a morality play, it’s one written by a man who has been described as a brawler, a government spy, a heretic, a rake, a magician and a dueler.

“It’s got this smattering of Christopher Marlowe’s irreverence. He’s an atheist and an iconoclast and a famous party boy who got elevated to rock star status pretty early,” Ricks says. “He only wrote a handful of plays, but they were wildly popular — especially ‘Faustus,’ which has demons and angels and the seven deadly sins and lucifer.”

Ricks says the idea to stage “Doctor Faustus” was borne out of Richmond Shakespeare’s staging of Liz Duffy Adams’ “Born With Teeth” earlier this year. That play imagines contemporaries Marlowe and William Shakespeare interacting with each other.

“Shakespeare and Marlowe are hanging out in a tavern and talking about art and politics and sex and young man things and collaborating on a play,” says Ricks of “Born With Teeth.” “‘Faustus’ was a no brainer. It’s his most famous, so we thought we’d give it a go.”

Local actor Landon Nagel, who stars in the title role, says “Doctor Faustus” differs from modern adaptations like the “Bedazzled” movies because the main character isn’t a doormat for the devil.

“Faustus is very accomplished, has cured disease and studied philosophy, is a professor of philosophy, but the science of the day is necromancy, it’s metaphysics,” Nagel explains. “In a way, it’s like an Elon Musk-type character, or a Jeff Bezos-type character who never seems to have enough. These things they toy with, are they for good, or are they for evil?”

As for Faustus’ agreeing to eternal damnation, Nagel says his character can’t compute that hell is real.

“He doesn’t believe that his soul is really going to end up anywhere but the ground or in the clouds with Greek philosophers,” Nagel explains. “There’s all kinds of opportunities for Faustus to change his mind or repent and renounce the magic, rather than renounce God, and he doesn’t do it.”

While “Doctor Faustus” is Marlowe’s best-known work, Ricks says there are a few logical leaps in the script. To fill in the blanks and lean into the supernatural bent of the play, Ricks has brought in collaborators to heighten the show’s theatricality, including musician Kate Statelman, scenic designer Lindsey Kelley, choreographer Starr Foster and puppeteer Lily Lamberta of All the Saints Theater Company.

“We’re doing everything we can to create the magical stagecraft that this world needs,” Ricks says.

Foster says the dancers will help the show transition from scene to scene.

“What James Ricks has done is created a very unique perspective on a very old play that’s fresh and exciting and has a lot of artistic components,” Foster says. “My contribution is integrating the dancers. That’s been a really collaborative opportunity for them, because often you don’t find that there’s movement and dance at this level in something that’s not a musical.”

Mentioning that he’ll be sweating up a storm while performing outside at Agecroft Hall, Nagel jokes the heat of July is appropriate for the play’s proceedings.

“It ends with me being pulled down to hell,” he says. “It’s perfect for summer.”

Richmond Shakespeare’s “Doctor Faustus” runs July 4-21 at Agecroft Hall, 4305 Sulgrave Road, as part of the Richmond Shakespeare Festival. For more information, visit richmondshakespeare.org or call (804) 340-0115.

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