“Dr. Faustus Lights the Lights” from the Henry Heymann Theatre


Photo courtesy of Christopher Staley.

Students perform “Dr. Faustus Lights the Lights” Wednesday night in the Henry Heymann Theatre. Performances will continue through Oct. 6.

By Tamara Alchoufete, Staff Writer

An eerie presence fills the Henry Heymann Theatre. The audience sits still and silent in the darkness, holding their breath. Then, a dark figure confidently ignites the lightbulbs hanging in the air one by one until the space is bathed in bright light, introducing onlookers to a world that has been adapted by theaters all over the globe.

“Dr. Faustus Lights the Lights,” the story of a power-hungry mad scientist, had its opening night Wednesday. The play is the first of four student-directed labs in Pitt Stages’ lineup this semester.

The absurd show follows the titular character, played by Jacob Aluise, as he tries to find a way out of a prison of his own making. Trapped in a cage of electric light with Little Boy (Sean Hale) and Dog (Quinn Murphy), Dr. Faustus has sold his soul to the devil, Mephisto (Malcolm Buisch), in exchange for the ability to produce electrical light and for the mastering of earthly knowledge. However, Faustus foolishly wants more and will do anything even if it means killing those closest to him or dragging them into the dark depths with him.

The timeless tale was written by Gertrude Stein, a Pittsburgh native, whose 20th-century production continues to hold themes that ring true today, such as gender representation, the use of technology and the impact older generations’ actions have on the young people’s future. Originally, Stein wrote the play as an opera and the current production holds onto some of that musicality, telling the whole story in rhyme.

Her avant-garde theater resonates in the adaptation Christopher J. Staley has crafted in only three weeks of rehearsal. Though the show was never staged in Stein’s lifetime, Staley said the creative team examined other iterations of the play when crafting their own and made changes, such as doing away with the sometimes monotone recitation of the rhythmic lines.

“While we’ve researched these other pieces and drawn inspiration from their interpretations, we’ve continued to ask our own unique questions based on our local sociopolitical landscape now in 2019,” he said.

As Dr. Faustus’ psyche unfolds, Chorus (Abigael Siecinski), narrates the tale and serves as the puppetmaster, telling the characters when to sit or stand and providing an introduction to their lines. Further turning normalcy on the head, Chorus visibly annotates the script as it is projected onto the plain white backdrop. She is the voice inside Faustus’ head, acting as the conscious he seems to have lost a long time ago.

At the beginning of the show, Marguerite Ida and Helena Annabel (Samantha Rose), one woman with four personalities — also referred to as MIHA — is bitten by a venomous viper, represented by a prosthetic leg. Rose visibly switches from the frantic Marguerite Ida to the cool Helena Annabel as she ponders how to save herself. MIHA continues to fade from viability when Country Woman (Caroline Phillips) refers her to Dr. Faustus, who Country Woman is sure can save Marguerite Ida and Helena Annabel.

MIHA calls out to Faustus, but he refuses to acknowledge her presence until he succumbs to his interest in her and then cures her. After overcoming death, she is able to control electrical light while still having her soul intact — which angers the mad doctor. Rose said she interprets the sides of her character as both the side of women men favor and the side they loathe.

“She’s kind of a mash-up of if you took all these boxes women are supposed to fit into and put them into one character, except that will never work, so that’s why she has like four personalities that she rotates between,” Rose said.

MIHA is constantly being beaten down by men around her. This is seen vividly when Faustus and a character called Man From Over the Sea (Jake Nahas) fight over her. Mephisto struck a deal with Dr. Faustus that grants him entrance into hell if he can persuade MIHA to go down with him. She almost immediately refuses and is whisked away by Man from Over the Sea.

As Marguerite Ida and Helena Annabel are being pulled in this back and forth by Dr. Faustus and Man from Over Sea, Girl (Diane Brunke) and Boy (Parker Stephens) are off to the side of the stage blankly staring at a TV screen with their mouths agape. The pair can be interpreted as a social commentary on the benefits and detriments of technology usage in the modern age. Boy and Girl watch as innocent bystanders until the very end where they bear the brunt of Faustus’ actions. They are the next generation to inherit the world left by those before them.

Sean Hale, who plays Little Boy, said his character represents Faustus’ loss of innocence and how the various characters’ actions affect one another.

“I’m supposed to represent this kind of like innocence and youth and before [Dr. Faustus] went on that route,” Hale said. “It’s not just Dr. Faustus, it’s just all these people affected by his choices and his actions and it all kind of spreads out and affects everyone else while they try to spread back and affect him too to kind of counter it all.”

Some argue that Stein created the characters to reflect different representations of herself and to scrutinize existential questions about the world around her about religion, humanity, innocence and the cost of knowledge amongst a plethora of others. The audience left the theater buzzing with commentary about characters they connected with and themes they saw shine through that made for some exhilarating post-show discussions.

This form-breaking production opened Wednesday night and will run at the Henry Heymann Theatre all the way through Sunday, Oct. 6, with 8 p.m. shows Thursday through Saturday and 2 p.m. shows on Saturday and Sunday.


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