There were moments during Friday's performance of the Prenzie Players' Doctor Faustus in which I was creeped out, but with a fascination that had me begging for more. Director Jake Walker, sound designer Elizabeth Spoerl, and lighting designer Tyson Danner create effectively ominous scenes, particularly those involving chanting or whispering from behind the black curtains surrounding the audience, or red light pouring forth from an opening in that cloth wall. Chills ran up my spine, goosebumps rose along my legs and arms, and the hair on the back of my neck stood up multiple times - all signs of a thrilling production.
Aaron E. Sullivan leads us on this dark path as the titular character in Walker's and Catie Osborn's adaptation, and amalgamation, of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's and Christopher Marlowe's plays about the doctor who sells his soul to the devil, in exchange for 24 years of having Mephistophilis at his beck and call. Sullivan starts the production in physician mode as Faustus examines and then administers medication to a woman in the early throes of the plague. He speaks in a matter-of-fact nature before retiring to his personal library to less clinically bemoan the inadequacy of religious and scientific tomes. Yet his frustration soon turns into a breathtakingly passionate awe and reverence for a book on the dark arts, ushering in Doctor Faustus' first spooky element.
For his first magical practice, Faustus attempts to summon a demon by way of a conjuring circle. On Friday, the ring Sullivan drew was so perfect, with an equally flawless bowed triangle inside of it and symbols along the edges, that I wondered if the actor would indeed successfully call forth a demon from Hell. And the hell-spawn he does arouse is Kitty Israel's Mephistophilis - not a real hellion, but a suitable substitute given her black clothing with red stockings and scarf, thick eyeliner drawn to a point at the corner of her white-contact covered eyes, and, most significantly, her stoic, slightly condescending, mildly angry demeanor. What's even more wonderful about Israel's portrayal are its undertones of evil power and wrath, as if her controlled countenance is really just Mephistophilis' effort to hold back her true, much more terrifying nature.
Among Faustus' first demands is knowledge of the true nature of the universe, and to oblige, Mephistophilis calls forth demons to demonstrate the movements of our solar system. Actors clad fully in black, and wearing masks with red lights in the "eyes" atop their heads (the performers walk with their heads down but their masks facing forward), enter holding glowing spheres of various sizes and colors above them, and mimic the movements of the planets around the sun. Accompanied by one of many effective bits of incidental music, and with the only light coming from the planets and the demons' eyes, the scene is mesmerizing, a true marvel to behold.
While designer Kate Farence is responsible for many notable costumes, none are as remarkable as her selections for the demons representing the deadly sins, which Molly Wilkinson's truly horrifying Lucifer - growling, purring, and shrieking to terrifying effect - summons to entertain Faustus. Among them, Denise Yoder's Wrath brandishes two swords while clothed in leggings that make it appear as if flames are licking at her calves. Lauren Moody's Covetousnous wears a short, sparkly gold dress and pulls items from the pajama and bathrobe pockets of James Palagi's sleeping Sloth. (On Friday, she also eyed an audience member's watch.) Sound designer Spoerl, meanwhile, makes the scene all the more delightful with incidental music to accompany each demon, matching their defining sin with smooth jazz, German polka, or some other befitting genre.
Faustus' fate is the thrust of the plot, but there are also side stories, including that of a woman he impregnates - Stephanie Moeller's Gretchen. While the role fits perfectly with Moeller's strongest character type, that of the young innocent, the actor has a chance to show her range when the girl goes mad while locked away for atrocious crimes. River Cities' Reader employee Nathan Klaus also provides much-welcome, and tremendously amusing, comic relief as Robin, an animatedly crass, uneducated servant to Faustus who dabbles in magic to impress Palagi's bumbling lothario Dick and lands them a humorous punishment. Jessica White earns a similar fate as Benvolio, a brash, big-talking knight who belittles Faustus publicly.
While the depictions are commendable across the board, it's the visual and aural effects that really sell the Prenzie Players' Doctor Faustus. I'm still marveling at the effectiveness of such simple actions to create a disturbingly haunting atmosphere that's perfect for the material.
Doctor Faustus runs at the QC Theatre Workshop (1730 Wilkes Avenue, Davenport) through July 26, and more information and tickets are available by calling (309)278-8426 or visiting PrenziePlayers.com.