Joshua Gleeson and Kitty Corum in “Faustus” (KC Public)
As part of its mission to engage in “radical hospitality” through theatre, Kansas City Public Theatre chooses to stage its productions in unconventional and publicly accessible locations. Their current run of Faustus is mounted at the Fountain City Winery in the West Bottoms, a venue that turned out to be exceptionally well suited to the event. The space is open but intimate, with a clean, rustic backdrop of brick walls and wooden beams. The company keeps the set dressing sparse, just a few crates, a metal wash basin, and many, many books. Micah Thompson’s dynamic lighting design is deeply transportive, more than making up for the lack of a set.
The simplicity of the visual aesthetic is the perfect match for this stripped-down version of Christopher Marlowe’s classic Doctor Faustus, adapted and directed by KC Public’s Producing Artistic Director Nathan Bowman. Bowman keeps Marlowe’s verse but cuts it down to about 70 minutes with just the essential cast of Faustus (Joshua Gleeson) and the demon Mephistopheles (Kitty Corum). The two have an easy chemistry and as the scholar who sells his soul to the devil, Gleeson beautifully captures the full scope of the complex character—the humor, the arrogance, the deep sorrow as he nears the end of his life and is forced to reflect on his choices.
Bowman himself rounds out the cast, filling in as a sort of chorus—a “guide,” he calls himself—and offers live accompaniment on electric guitar throughout. Bowman finds some ingenious workarounds for the other characters, including audience participation and one particularly affecting scene in which Mephistopheles’s body is inhabited by the seven sins (typically played by seven different actors). Others, like Helen of Troy, are depicted as visions appearing to Faustus, invisible to us as we watch him experience them. The show may be streamlined but that did not come with any sacrifice in terms of creativity.
KC Public was recently named the Arts Organization of the Year by the Missouri Arts Council for—in addition to their other programs—providing high-quality theatre free of charge (paid reserved seating is also available) in publicly accessible spaces. Faustus was the first show of theirs that I’ve seen but after seeing the kind of raw, innovative work they’re producing, it will be far from the last.
“Faustus,” a production of Kansas City Public Theatre, runs through October 29 at Fountain City Winery, 1409 West 11th Street. For more information, visit www.kcpublictheatre.org.