Overtime gives Faust(us) a soul

From Overtime Theatre comes a sincere and conceptual comedy by Rebecca Coffey that, while occasionally campy, shows real growth for the talented cast and crew. Starring the reincarnated tragic figure of Faust, The Poet Faustus follows the discouraged artist from rags to riches, and back to rags.

Faustus Black (John Poole) craves recognition for his literary talents in an age that worships the talentless (think Paris Hilton and the like). After a manic, hallucinatory vision of futility, it’s suggested he’ll only achieve fame if he sells his soul to the devil. Black can’t take a joke.     

To carry out his desperate wish, Black and his Wiccan friend Xyanthe (captivatingly played by Pamela Kenny) conjure the devil with the help of an LSD-induced spell, but God (Deborah Basham-Barns) appears instead. Poet Faustus adds this gratifying twist, and the familiar legend provides a backbone for the refreshing conceptual exploration that ensues.    

It’s impossible to review this performance without comparing it to past productions at Overtime (which include an earlier rendition of this play). The entire group has come a long way. Several elements gel in this show, including light and sound effects, narrative pacing, and character depth, that allow the story to bloom from under its low-budget appearance.         

When Black sells his soul to God in exchange for success and the fame goes straight to his head, his neglected friends steal him away from his entourage to confront him about his ego, finding the nearest private space — a dark, cramped closet. The director (also John Poole) and crew hit all the cues as people enter and exit the closet, reminiscent of Noises Off. In an even funnier moment, after Black’s 15 minutes have run out, handheld rain-cloud and pooping-bird props hover over the unlucky star in a charming bit just before Black’s descent into self-loathing, shame, and regret.

Poole extends his range as the passionate, likable poet. When Black’s friends don’t understand his struggle, he pleads, “Don’t reduce me to a sitcom character.” But that’s precisely what makes him so endearing. He settles into the role comfortably, giving us energy and poise during his pitiful fall. Deborah Basham-Barns is a show-stealer as usual, playing it ultra-cool in a quirky Diane Keaton-esque portrayal of God (the character says so herself.) Another notable is the Rastafarian open-mic emcee (Lucy Villanueva).

Laced throughout the entire evening is the kind of physical humor that sells — Bill Martin swigs absinthe like a hiccupping sailor; David Robb, a fellow poet, reenacts scenes from Black’s past in a robotic, David Cross-like rendition. On the flipside, the story employs a chorus of rambunctious, eclectic figures to intervene and “explain” things. The trope feels unnecessary, and it’s not made any better by the troupe’s tendency to overact and rely on silliness.

At the center of this tale is a touching look at a man coming to grips with his selfish, worldly desire for fame. But the script is by no means perfect. It tries to be a lot of things: pop-culture spoof, philosophical epic, psychological doozy. The climax of the play falls short with its implausibility — Black’s celebrity antics have essentially “killed poetry.” I can’t imagine how poetry could become anathema based on a singular man (and if we’re supposed to correlate this with the Paris Hilton blueprint, then I’m still waiting for the day).

Poet Faustus doesn’t answer the questions it claims to raise, like what is the price tag on success? Or, more absurdly, what is the meaning of life? Instead it ruminates on the intersection of art, reality, and responsibility. A backdrop painting of M.C. Escher stairs reinforces a script that feels like a hall of mirrors — the devil turns out to be God, Black is the plaything of fate, and other surprises I won’t spoil. All of this culminates in what is really a beautifully written and performed ending — or should I say near-ending? Poet Faustus really contains two conclusions, and they’re both good, but someone should have chosen one. Yet, despite a few holes and scattered thoughts, Poet Faustus’s artistic flare shows real soul. •


The Poet Faustus
8pm Thu-Sat
Through Sep 27
$5-9; roll the die Thu
The Overtime Theater
1216 West Ave.
(210) 380-0326

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