When a director welcomes an audience to his original adaptation of Christopher Marlowe's Doctor Faustus by inviting them to stick around after the show for some "nibblies," it's a safe bet the evening will be defined by disorientation. And disorientation – along with its frequent camp follower, disappointment – is the quality that hangs like a shroud over Faustus Project 14, The Crooked Twilight Theatre Company's first production in Orlando following a relocation from Chicago. As a local debut, it's the definition of inauspicious.

Creative chieftain Rob D. O'Brien's interpretation of the familiar Beelzebub-bothering story piles on the old-guard avant-garde theatrics, imbuing the amateurish (and occasionally even appalling) proceedings with a misleading sense of possibility. Our introduction to the title seeker (Jason York) finds him attired in an XXL robe that's really more of an all-enveloping iron maiden and gesticulating with absurdly oversized prosthetic hands. Not bad. The dark fantasia that follows renders Faustus' journey of curiosity and damnation as a sinister medicine show. Shadow puppets wage a pitched battle; a disembodied skull is paraded about the stage, speaking in a taped basso profundo; cast members hurl mocking laughter from behind a translucent netting bedecked with pinpoints of light.

It's all in the service of a 76-minute truncation of Marlowe's story, in which the German scholar Faustus enters into an ill-advised pact with Lucifer, trading his soul for a few decades of material and intellectual satisfaction. For our comprehension of the action that transpires in between, we must thank Cliffs Notes: The young, flagrantly inexperienced cast has barely memorized O'Brien's appropriated formal language, let alone devised a way to make it listenable. (In his opening-night welcome, O'Brien warned that some of the performers were brand-new to the footlights. They rose to his depiction.) Meaning goes out the window as speakers accent arbitrary syllables, throw away crucial pronouncements and muff painfully exposed unison lines.

The brightest exception is Talisha C. Howard as Lucifer's emissary, Mephistophilis. Her grand declaiming, while melodramatic and lacking in variety, at least wields the authority of a mildly accomplished slam poet – making her easily the best thing on the stage. But even she is tripped up by O'Brien's unimaginative blocking, which has his players ambling about the stage aimlessly and periodically breaking out into lazy, pseudo-mimetic movements. Faced with a procession of underrehearsed greenhorns in black leotards, whose tag-team doomsaying sometimes approximates the timbre of Looney Tunes characters (as when the specter of Gluttony cries out ludicrously for "Turkey legs!"), the only reasonable reaction is the giggles.

Still, there's no joy in panning a show like this; one feels as if one has stumbled into a class project undertaken by hopeful naifs, some of whom may harbor career aspirations that can be dashed by a single injudicious word. "These are freshmen's questions," York's Faustus says as he and Mephistophilis debate the nature of earth, heaven and hell. First-semester pursuits, yes, but they're being sold as a legitimate theater experience for adults, and so must be judged – and then dispatched – accordingly. As our hero later laments, standing before the gaping maw of perdition, "I've seen enough to torture me." You ain't kiddin'.

Faustus Project 14
Through Nov. 5
Studio Theatre

[email protected]


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