The play opens on a clever touch that showcases the playhouse's recent expansion. In near-total darkness, Pettrow enters the darkened theater carrying a candle. As Tulaine rises from the floor and commences a long soliloquy, Pettrow lights the candles on all of the audience's tables (not counting the balcony level). It's a neat visual element that suggests both the light of Faustus' early scholarship and anticipates the demonic intrusions: Lucifer's name comes from "Light Bringer."
Faustus' quest for knowledge causes him to abjure religion and civilized thought for sorcery: "It is magic that has ravished me." He conjures Mephistophilis, seeking power and omniscience, which the devil will grant only if Faustus sells his soul, writing the deed in his own blood.
Marlowe's original version is filled with clownish scenes and characters which, to modern audiences, seem out of place with the dark diabolism. The Tavern production jettisons much the original's comedy, which isn't especially missed. But there's still unexpected flares of humor, as when Faustus learns that the devil craves souls because "Misery loves company," or when Mephistophilis rouses the panicking Faustus by drenching him with a bucket of water.
This version of the play emphasizes the hollowness of Faustus' actions once the devil grants him his wishes. He invisibly teases the Pope at dinner (with Pettrow sitting in the audience to suggest a Vatican banquet hall), performs conjuring tricks for an Emperor, woos Helen of Troy (Jennifer Akin in a brief appearance) and asks surprisingly prosaic questions about astronomy and the heavens. The production employs haunted house effects such as spooky noises, eerie lights and a massive, silly ogre head meant to represent Lucifer.
There's a strange moment where Pettrow enacts a pageant of the seven deadly sins, speaking in different voices (as Gluttony, he's a formidable belcher), which nearly turns into an odd game show. Pettrow isn't quite versatile enough to succeed in all the play's roles but still has a sinuous, sinister presence. Tulaine's swaggering fits Faustus' ambition (the character shares Lucifer's "aspiring pride and insolence"), but while he brings plenty of showy physicality to the role, he doesn't foster much intimacy or empathy with the audience, a crucial aspect for the tragedy to have weight.
Faustus famously ends with the doctor unable to repent, waiting in terror for the devil to claim his soul, and the theater's concept doesn't really payoff. There's a clever use of those candles, but the action is both restrained and unclear, lacking the horror we should feel at Faustus' fate. But if the Tavern production deflects some of the punch of Marlowe's script, it has many interesting ideas and suits the season -- too bad it closes two days before Halloween.
Doctor Faustus plays through Oct. 29 at the New American Shakespeare Tavern, 499 Peachtree St., with performances at 7:30 p.m. Fri. and Sat. and 6:30 p.m. Sun. 404-874-5299.
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