ONE CAN'T FAULT young Stuart Bousel for not aiming high. The latest project for the Reed College senior, through his Quicksilver Productions company, is a staging of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's dramatic poem, Faust. The plus-three-hour presentation, adapted and directed by Bousel (who also plays the voice of God), features 44 characters played by 19 actors and actresses. Despite their enthusiastic performances, however, Faust: Part One is confusing and overwrought. Focusing on philosophical exposition rather than action or character development, it makes for a very long evening.
Bousel's title comes from the fact that Goethe's original poem is in two parts. Based on the medieval legend of a man who sells his soul to the devil, Part One (published in 1808) tells of Dr. Henry Faust's bargain for happiness with the demon Mephistopheles. Transformed into a young man, he meets and woos Margaret, impregnates her, kills her brother and finally visits her in prison where she's condemned to die for murdering their baby. In Part Two, not addressed in Bousel's play, Faust triumphs over Mephistopheles and is admitted to heaven.
So here we have magic, sex, murder, love, eloquent characters, conflict, everything you could want in a night out. But in the glacial pace of Bousel's script, Faust's deal with the devil, the inciting action of the drama, doesn't occur until the end of Act I, nearly an hour into the work. Up to that point, there's a great deal of chatting about the nature of man, life, school, existential angst, the audience, theatre in general, how silly boys are and the dangers of foreign intervention. There's lots of visual interest with people serving as mirrors, lamps and trees, but Bousel mistakes movement for action.
Act II fares better with the young Faust now on the scene seducing Margaret with a little demonic help. Unfortunately, given that he could have anyone in the world, Faust's attraction to Margaret is unclear. Act III moves even better, and the cast has a great deal of fun with the scene of a witches' orgy.
Bousel makes several alterations to Goethe that are questionable. Mephistopheles appears to kill Margaret's brother, rather than merely assisting Faust in the murder, thus undermining Faust's degradation. The play ends immediately upon Margaret's death, leaving the question of her redemption, a key point in the poem, unanswered. After his transformation, Bousel has old Faust meet his younger self onstage in scenes that are simply confusing.
As old Faust, Dean Hepker is completely engaging. Articulate and mellifluous, he makes the heavy-handed philosophical exposition in Act I somewhat tolerable. Unfortunately, he's largely written out of the script after that, squandering one of Tucson's best acting talents. Travis Wright (Mephistopheles), Werner James (young Faust) and Amada Karam (Margaret) all turn in solid if not outstanding performances. Moreover, these young actors, hindered by Bousel's wordy script, often substitute histrionics for subtlety.
After last summer's Oresteia -- a Bousel adaptation of Aeschylus that managed to create an interesting and informed version of the Greek tragedy -- Faust: Part One is a disappointment. The writing here is self-indulgent and overlong, and the production cluttered with actors whose sole function is to populate the stage. Too many marginal characters make it difficult to focus on who's who, and how they're supposed to move the story forward.
The enlightened Goethe believed that striving was a noble act in and of itself, and mistakes a natural part of man's progress. In that vein, Bousel's ambition is laudable; and though he strays into excess in this far reach, it's certainly a forgivable sin.
Faust: Part One continues through August 7 at the Tucson Center for the Performing Arts, 408 S. Sixth Ave. Show time is 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday. Tickets are $6, available at the door prior to show time. For reservations and more information, call 797-4792.