Published in KPBS On Air Magazine October 2001
Okay, quick. Name the Seven Deadly Sins. If you can’t, well, help is on the way. All seven make an anthropomorphic appearance at Lamb’s Players Theatre, to tempt Dr. Faustus..
In the 16th century masterwork by Christopher Marlowe, Dr Faustus is a scholar and sorcerer of sorts, who seeks unlimited power through expansive knowledge. To help him make what’s come to be called his ‘Faustian bargain,’ the Devil sends in the Seven Deadly Sins (Greed, Envy, Pride, Lust, Gluttony, Anger, Sloth — did you get ’em all??). Faust’s boundless longings serve as a cautionary tale for anyone who really thinks he can ‘have it all.’
Lamb’s Players artistic director Robert Smyth adores Marlowe’s morality tale, which he adapted and directed two decades ago Now he’s anxious to learn from it anew, directing his latest adaptation.
” It’s a visceral, gutsy play,” he says, “Enormously intriguing and influential.”
Dr. Faustus, who may or may not have been a real German scientist/alchemist, sells his soul to Mephistopheles for money, power and fame. In so doing, he influenced countless creations to come — from Goethe’s “Faust” to the opera by Gounod, from “Dracula” to Damn Yankees and “The Little Mermaid,” from “The Devil and Tom Walker” (Washington Irving, 1800) to “The Devil and Daniel Webster” (Stephen Vincent Benet, 1936) to the 1972 X-rated film “The Devil in Miss Jones.”
Selling out, says Smyth, is an eternally relevant issue. “You can always say, ‘We’re a corrupt, materialistic society.’ But go back to any time in history, and people were claiming the same thing.”
The play lasts, he asserts, because “it deals with the Large Questions: What is power? Where does it really reside? How much can we bargain for before we sell our self? What is the core of the self? And what happens once you’ve given it away?
” I love Faustus,” says the shy, soft-spoken Smyth. “We can identify with him. We long for and yell at him. And Mephistopheles is not a villain. If he’s played like a scheming devil, you miss all the irony. He’s very smooth, very relaxed. What’s important in the play is what you see is not necessarily what’s true.”
And what seems to be a deep, dark message-laden piece of theater certainly isn’t only that. Marlowe’s classic is laced with comedy, sometimes of a rather low variety.
“In Elizabethan work,” Smyth explains, “the comic character pokes fun at the main character. The sense of slapstick is juxtaposed with the deeper, philosophical issues. The play has comedy, tragedy, history, fantasy — something for everyone!”
It’s a perfect ensemble piece, and Smyth is making excellent use of his well-oiled collaborative performance and design team. The eight actors portray dozens of characters, and the director’s wife, Deborah Gilmour Smyth, composed the ambitious score, an eclectic mix of electric guitar and Gregorian chant.
This is a celebrational event all around; it closes the Lambs’ 30th year and marks the company’s 200th production. The group started as a street ensemble, an offshoot of a drama class at Bethel College in St. Paul, MN. Realizing that the street theater season was pitifully brief in the Midwest, they moved to San Diego in 1972 and began touring to colleges, parks and prisons nationwide.
Smyth joined up in 1976 and the resident acting company was established in 1978. There are now 11 full-time paid performers in the company, in addition to 31 other employees. “A quarter of the company has been together more than 15 years,” says Smyth. “Another quarter weren’t born when we started.”
The troupe is unique in many ways. Lamb’s is the only year-round acting ensemble in the Southwest; there are only two or three like it in the country. The annual budget of $4million qualifies it as the third largest professional theater company in the county (after the Globe and La Jolla Playhouse) and one of the top 50 in the U.S. The group maintains two theaters (in Coronado and National City), and also produces regularly at the Lyceum Theatre in Horton Plaza, the Hotel Del Coronado and California Center for the Arts-Escondido. Their long-term dream is now a four-year plan: to acquire a new 300-500 seat space downtown.
Lamb’s is also distinctive in that 75% of its annual income comes from ticket sales (the average is 54%). “So that means we have to constantly be producing.” They mount 9-12 mainstage shows a year, many of which Smyth directs or performs in. He is fiercely proud of his Lambs, and bristles when they’re dismissed as a religious theater group.
“Much of our company has a faith perspective. It’s a sensibility. We’re not a church and we don’t do prayers or proselytizing. Over time, we’ve grown a great deal, as people and as artists. Last June, a San Diego Magazine Readers’ Poll named us Best Performing Arts Group in the county. The media should stop pretending we’re this little Christian thing in the corner of the county.
“We’re an ensemble, but we’re not insular,” he asserts. Over the years, the company has, in fact, hired more than 500 San Diego actors.
In planning each season, Smyth doesn’t like to think of his theatrical fare of musicals, dramas, classics and new plays as any kind of ‘formula’ — he sees it more like a restaurant menu. “It’s easy to sell pie and ice cream,” he says. “But we’re also interested in serving meat and potatoes. Some people think they only want pie and ice cream but they wind up enjoying the meat and potatoes just as much.”
Dr. Faustus has plenty to chew on, but you also get your just desserts. So come for the pie; stay for the meat.
©2001 Patté Productions Inc.