The mood backstage at Doctor Faustus Lights the Lights is agitated. It’s T minus three days before their first performance. The D.B. Clarke Theatre is a mess. Scaffolding and various construction parts are strewn outside the entrance. Inside, director Nathalie Claude is testing the sound as a crew member scrambles up and down a huge mountain of books that are stacked one on top of the other on stage. The lights are just bright enough to see the dust particles in the air.
“It’s almost like a portrait of a mind disintegrating. It’s almost like a nightmare,” says Callahan Connor, who plays the title character. He’s referring to the play itself, but he might as well be describing the preparation that has cast members and stage crew alike buzzing around.
As he is speaking, Sara Rodriguez &- chorus member number two &- steps into the room. “I won’t bother [anyone],” she says, and starts rummaging through a bag full of black combat boots to find a pair. However she, like most everyone else involved in the play, is eager to speak about it.
The first dressing room is a small rectangular space with white walls and counters. It bears a heavy resemblance to the other dressing room next door. The faint sound of an actor singing and strumming a ukulele drifts through the hall.
It’s suppertime backstage: Connor is snacking on breakfast foods while Cameron Sedgwick slurps up Thai Express noodles.
Sedgwick plays Faustus’ counterpart Mephisto (better known as the Devil). The legend of Faustus is one of a man tempted by Lucifer to sell his soul for knowledge. The story of man’s struggle between good and evil has been retold for centuries.
Dr Faustus Lights the Lights is Gertrude Stein’s take on Goethe’s version, which is considered to be the classic telling of the story. In turn, Stein’s piece is a classic example of modernist work. It is written in the style of a stream of consciousness, leaving much of the interpretation up to the director, and to the audience.
The abstract nature of Stein’s writing was a possible roadblock to the production, which only started rehearsals in mid-October. Sedgwick, for one, is appreciative of Claude’s skill in cutting straight to the point. “You really have to trust her vision of it, and that she knows what she’s talking about,” he says. Claude is an industry veteran: her lengthy resumÃ© includes a recurring role on the sitcom km/h, which aired on TVA from 1998 to 2006, and a position in the experimental theatre company Momentum.
Connor and Sedgwick agree that the text is complex. The “odd form that the language takes” is one of the factors that appealed to Connor in the first place. “It seems to capture the rhythm and direction of actual thoughts in all of their incomprehensibility at the time,” he says. “When characters are expressing themselves […] it almost seems to reveal the jumps that are happening between ideas inside their own heads. It can seem really abstract but there’s still a visceral momentum to all of it.”
Lights the Lights, written in 1938, also captures the essence of the dawn of the Western industrial age, and the fears that accompanied the transition. In Goethe’s version, Dr. Faustus seeks divine knowledge and in despair turns to the devil to obtain it. In Stein’s, he seeks the ability to create light.
The production includes elements such as electronic music and fluorescent light bulbs, things that, as Sedgwick pointed out, “didn’t even exist when Gertrude Stein wrote [the play.]” According to Rodriguez, the inclusion of those components “shows the timelessness of the piece.”
Sedgwick adds, “Those things are still very much at home in this, because they represent what it means to us now, just as the devil still means the devil now.”
Doctor Faustus Lights the Lights will play Dec. 2 to 5 at Concordia’s D.B. Clarke Theatre. For box office information call 514-848-2424 ext. 4742 or consult theatre.concordia.ca