Star-Bulletin Features

Thursday, April 19, 2001

Alison Jucutan is among the University of Hawaii drama students
who may have had no audience had the UHPA strike
dragged on, cancelling "Faust."

Faustian bargains
More than a little devilish deal-making
determined the fate of Dennis Carroll's monumental
production of 'Faust,' which survives the
UHPA strike to serve up a fiendishly
delicious feast for the senses

By Scott Vogel

IT'S ONE OF THE MOST exciting theatrical events of this or any year, a monumental, six-hour staging of Goethe's "Faust" combining both epic scope and dazzling technical virtuosity. It boasts an original electronic score, extensive video and slide projections, more than 125 costumes, two Mephistopheles and three Fausts, the entire production requiring the coordinated efforts of more than 70 people. The show has been in rehearsal -- six days a week -- for almost seven months.

And it almost died an ignominious death.

For a few tense weeks, it seemed that Faust, who survived a bout with nihilistic depression and his lover's tragic death, not to mention a pact with the devil, had finally met his match in the UHPA, whose strike has led to the cancellation of the first week of "Faust" performances and once threatened to obliterate it entirely. Thanks to Tuesday night's settlement between the state and the faculty, however, performances of this landmark production will at last begin one week from tonight at the Kennedy Theater.


What: "Faust" Parts One and Two
When: Part One: 8 p.m. April 26, 2 p.m. April 28, 2 p.m. April 29
Part Two: 8 p.m. April 27; 7 p.m. April 28, 7 p.m. April 29
Where: University of Hawaii Kennedy Theater
Cost: $12; $9 for seniors, military, UH faculty/staff; $7 for non-UHM; $3 for UHM students with valid I.D.
Call: 956-7655

What a difference a week makes. Just a few days ago -- when interviews were conducted with some of the principal players behind "Faust" -- there was indeed talk of a tragedy in the making at the University of Hawaii, but it wasn't Goethe's.

"This strike has come at the worst possible time in terms of our work, but we're trying to persevere," said director Dennis Carroll last Friday, his show once scheduled to open this evening. "The students have devoted a major part of their lives to this, and to be suddenly told that the production isn't going on is quite difficult." And while he acknowledged that the strike was a necessity under the circumstances, Carroll couldn't help but wonder what would become of "Faust," a show he'd been trying to bring to the Hawaii stage for 11 years.

"Cast morale is pretty high, considering," he said at the time. "They took it all in good heart when it was announced we'd have to postpone the opening and that we'd have the odd rehearsal when we could." Nevertheless, when it comes to a theatrical production, momentum is a very important thing, and Carroll conceded that "Faust" was "treading water."

Even treading water was a tall order, given the technical demands of the piece. While not scenically lavish, this "Faust" aims to explore every nook and cranny -- every trap and side-stage -- of the Kennedy Theater, especially in the rarely staged Part Two, for which the space will be gutted. (This is no idle gesture. Part One focuses on the ethical and psychological fate of one man, while Part Two speaks of mankind generally, employing a more symbolic narrative.) Production screens, utilizing both front and back projection, as well as a mobile, conical screen that "cocoons" one of the characters, are also scattered throughout.

Stage manager Kati Brennan is responsible for 125 costumes in
the production that will run six hours and took 11 years
to bring to the stage.

Perhaps unwittingly, Carroll and company chose the perfect play to stage against a backdrop of tense negotiations, and no reader of "Faust," however casual, can fail to see connections between Goethe's world and our own strike-battered one.

The Faust with whom you are probably most familiar is the creature of Part One, an exhausted, deeply conflicted man whom Mephistopheles persuades to exchange his soul for luxury and carnal delights. Adding to the conflict in Carroll's production, however, is the presence of three actors playing Faust, one of whom (Bill Carr) brings to life the elder if not especially wiser protagonist.

The others (Scot Davis and Blake Kushi) portray two sides of the younger Faust: one the hedonist, the other the cool observer.

ANOTHER DYNAMIC DUO (Helen Lee and Moses Goods) snagged the delicious role of Mephistopheles, and it's here that things get really interesting.

It's Carroll's contention that Mephisto is a bisexual figure, and "the concept reflects that gender split," he said. "She conjures, seduces, and makes things happen in a way that isn't extremely direct. The male Mephistopheles is more up front about what he advises, a major initiator of some of the actions."

For those of you keeping score, that's three fallen men, two demons from hell and one play nearly grounded by a university strike. But even in the dark days of last week, some couldn't help seeing the light.

"Things like (a strike) don't mess up my stride one bit," said Anthony Bergamo, whom Carroll tapped to write an original score for "Faust."

A GRADUATE off Boston's Berklee College of Music, the jazz-trained composer wrote 35 to 40 separate pieces of electronic music for the play, composing the entire score on a Macintosh computer. A man of eclectic musical tastes, it's not unusual for Bergamo to listen to Bartok, Stravinsky, heavy metal and John Coltrane before getting down to a serious session of composing. Carroll was particularly interested in the music from the film "Fight Club," which Bergamo was familiar with and which provided a jumping-off point for the "Faust" score.

"I'm trying to meld the influences of the old Hitchcock movies and some of the Henry Mancini leitmotif composers," he said. "Take that element that I love so much, and then take the aggression and the 'cut-and-pastes' and sampling of modern electronic music." And Bergamo is not above borrowing from the music of other animals: electronically generated dolphin and whale sounds are sprinkled throughout the score.

Over in the Kennedy Theater costume shop, Hannah Schauer was just about to begin hemming dresses for Part Two of "Faust" when the strike hit.

Alison Jucutan, one of 70 students involved in the production
of "Faust," tries on a robe from the play. With her is
stage manager Kati Brennan.

Employing a far more complicated color scheme than Part One (which is done entirely in shades of burgundy), the second half of the show starts with a blue scheme and then digresses in several directions via numerous costume changes. But any future alterations would have to wait until rehearsals resumed yesterday. Also on hold were 15 students who volunteered to dress the show, along with another five who worked in the costume shop.

"Morale is pretty good," Schauer said before the strike settled, "and they're all hanging in there and amazingly not being very intimidated by what's going on around them."

Still, she admitted that the theater was a rather stressful place. Some students had crossed the picket line to work in the costume shop, and Schauer sympathized with their plight.

"There are a lot of students who work for me and have to pay rent," she said. "A lot of other students are telling them they shouldn't be there. So we're all on eggshells waiting for the show the start."

Also on eggshells was Kurt Wurmli, the UH theater research assistant who produced many video and slide projections of "Faust." He holds a degree from the Parsons School of Design, and exhibitions of Wurmli's audio-visual work have been mounted in New York, Russia and France. But it's in his native Switzerland that he first made acquaintance with "Faust," reading the great German work when he was just 10. "The play is just so tremendous, so deep," he said. "It still is very accurate and very interesting today."

WURMLI DECIDED that the video screens should not serve to merely illustrate the action. "It is more to create an emotional world or intellectual world. It is to transport the audience to another realm." During the witches' coven scene, for instance, Wurmli has eschewed stereotypical images of, say, a boiling pot, in favor of a very sensual photo of a breathing torso. And while Part One utilizes just one screen, Part Two employs three, allowing Wurmli to create triptychs and other special visual tricks. The one trick he couldn't pull off, however, was an end to the strike.

"Certainly, it feels bad," he said, and in his voice one sensed the ancient artist's fear at failing to find an audience. "A lot of people put a lot of work into it, and it is art. And if it's not going to happen, then it's frustrating, of course."

Between Goethe's poetry, Bergamo's music, Wurmli's videos and whatever other surprises Carroll has in store, it all adds up to a "Faust" that, if nothing else, should be a feast for the eye, ear and mind.

During the bleak, purgatorial period that ended on Tuesday night, it helped to remember that though called a tragedy, at the last minute (of the sixth hour, in this case), Faust is saved from damnation by divine intervention.

Thankfully, Hawaii's "Faust" was a recipient of a similar last-minute miracle, and only one question remains. Who -- the state or UHPA -- made a deal with the devil this time?

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