By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
It sounds like an OK gig. And you can argue that aspirational clients, like Dr. Faustus, get what they deserve when they sign away their souls for unlimited knowledge, power, worldly pleasure, and the 24/7 services of a devil valet.
But in the end, collecting souls is a dead-end job, with a lot of red tape and fine print on every contract. Just ask Mephistopheles (Gaitre Killings), the troubled, stressed-out, aggrieved demon of Connor Yuzwenko-Martin’s remarkably ambitious, adventurous, and off-centre new play After Faust.
The Invisible Practice production directed by Ebony R. Gooden at the Backstage Theatre, performed in ASL with English captioning, has an historic resonance to it. The playwright, a Deaf theatre artist himself, bills his new play — the first of RISER Edmonton’s four-show 2023 series of indie productions — as “the first Deaf-written, Deaf-directed, Deaf-acted and Deaf-produced stage play in recent Alberta history.”
It will almost certainly be the only play you’ll see this season in which Thomas Aquinas and Elon Musk share a stage — for reasons I’ve struggled to fully grasp in truth. And as for the story of Faustus, the brilliant astronomer whose vaulting ambitions for knowledge lead him to make a deal with a demon, I can’t say I’ve ever given Mephistopheles’ work situation much thought. This intriguing “sequel” to the Christopher Marlowe play, which ranges freely through time and space, is all about that.
The stage, designed by Madeline Blondal, is dominated by a blue distressed door. But that’s not how the characters arrive in a brick-lined chamber demarcated by Christen Long’s projections. Later, in one of the memorable visual images on which After Faustus is built, the mystery door seems to give on the entire galaxy, without ever opening.
The long first scenes of the play, in which I scrambled a bit to figure out which side-stage captions went with which character (despite their colour coding), are dominated by Mephistopheles’ anger. This glamorous personage arrives writhing, reluctantly, armed with a selection of door knobs for the fatal door. None of them fit, understandably enraging since she’s spent the last 500 years in “a perfect cage,” an endless room, trapped between then and here and there and now,” searching for Faustus.
Anyhow, Mephistopheles is seriously put-out by having been summoned, and without the requisite rituals, by a man (Mustafa Alabssi as Cassio) who doesn’t even recognize her. His cherished cousin Peia (Kayla Bradford Sinasac, a vision in white) committed suicide two days before. Grief-stricken Cassio, an appealing human figure in Alabssi’s performance, professes himself baffled by his encounter with Mephistopheles, a feeling we can all share. But grief-stricken, he would give anything, he says, to be located in time even two days before her death, thus able to prevent it.
Suddenly, they find themselves in a monastery garden with Thomas Aquinas (Jan McCarthy). This is a play with its own quirky sense of humour: Is it an Airbnb perhaps? Cassio wonders. Aquinas is amused. He and Mephistopheles are apparently sparring partners of old: “Remember how I tried to exorcise you the first time we met?”
Is Cassio a Faust-like figure? I take it that grief has made him vulnerable to the allure of restoring life, or undoing death. The play’s more Faustian figure, theoretically, is Elon Musk, brilliant and wayward, a swaggering monster of self-absorption who has sold his soul to a demon. “We have electrified the world,” Musk declares. “It’s now the age of mitigation.”
Why, you will ask yourself, is Musk (played with droll cockiness by Hodan Youssouf), in a black, queer, Deaf body? Answer: “because I wanted to see what it was like.”
The play’s most striking image, realized in exceptional lighting (Rory Turner), sound (Dave Clarke), and movement (Ainsley Hillyard) has Musk leading a bicycle charge through the starry universe. True, Musk’s galactic venture has gone more a bit wrong; the moon and Mars have collided, oops, and humanity is done for, over. But, no worries, there are still fungi (Musk is known for his attachment to the idea of magic mushrooms) as a source of regeneration.
The consolingly lyrical scenes in which Cassio remembers his childhood idyll with Peia, playing, building sand castles at the beach, sharing secrets, are charmingly presented by both actors.
I have to admit the finer points of contracting between man and demon (there is much talk of contracts), and the motivation of Mephistopheles’ intensely emotional quest to find Faustus, and ditch her job, did elude me. But the notion that grief and loss are powerful motivators did strike home.
After Faust is the work of a highly original writer and thinker. And Gooden’s high theatrical production introduces us to the work of a whole new troupe of Deaf actors. That’s a provocative start to this year’s RISER productions.
RISER Edmonton 2023
Theatre: Invisible Practice
Written and produced by: Connor Yuzwenko-Martin
Directed by: Ebony R. Gooden
Starring: Mustafa Alabssi, Gaitrie Killings, Jan McCarthy, Kayla Bradford Sinasac, Hodan Youssouf
Where: Backstage Theatre, ATB Financial Arts Barn, 10330 84 Ave.
Running: through Sunday