Ron Sossi and his company have cunningly abridged Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's 16-hour-long Faust opus into a comparatively breezy three-hour edition of the great philosophical and theological drama that emphasizes the Faust-y over the fusty. The severe concision of the material, however, sometimes leaves us feeling a bit lost. The show zips along at a crackling pace, with the adapters pruning some scenes to the bone. Yet, along with the bits some might think of as being pedantic, they also cut material that gives the work its sense of transition, timing, import, and structure. The result is a show that feels more like a "Faust's Greatest Hits" album than a coherent drama. The spectacle suggests only limited amounts of the play's background and supporting arguments. No one really goes to see Goethe's Faust for the story; we're there for the philosophy and debate, which, in this production, feel like they've been given short shrift.
Goethe's work traces the rise, fall, and salvation of the scholar Faust (Jim Petersmith), who, desirous of understanding the full breadth of human experience, makes a deal with the diabolical Mephisto (Tom Lillard and then Beth Hogan, playing the same character at different points in the play) for a lifetime of pleasure and wisdom. Faust's journeys take him to a tavern of drunken oafs and then to a den of witches, who turn him into a young man (Luis Zambrano). With the devils' help, Faust woos the beautiful Gretchen (Melanie Freedom Flynn) but brings her to destruction.
In Part Two, Faust and his devil pals journey to ancient Greece to meet Helen of Troy (Brenda Lasker). He observes the creation of a robotic child (Lindsay Beamish). And finally, as a cruel old man of unlimited power, Faust is ordered to make good on his deal with the devil; but he wriggles out of the bargain at the very last moment, thanks to divine intercession.
The first half of Sossi's production is brisk and full of dramatic nuance, the comic sequences in particular dispatched with panache and impeccable timing. The intricacy of the rehearsal process is frequently evident in the show's performances: It's clear from the line readings and blocking that much exploration and analysis have gone into every balletic gesture. Yet, disappointingly, the show seems to run out of steam midway through: The production's final third feels comparatively enervated, lacking in the momentum and ingenuity of earlier sequences. Additionally, the abbreviated text sometimes reduces the efficacy of the show's emotional beats, such as Faust's affair with Gretchen and Faust's final rapture, which feel weak and inadequately involving.
Nevertheless, as the sinister Mephisto, the splendid "demon team" of Lillard and Hogan offer very different but hilariously jaundiced portraits of lecherous desire and cynical experience. Beamish is hilarious as the bizarre Frankenstein-like monster (complete with bouncy little penis). And Alan Abelew, portraying Faust as a jaded old man, offers an unnerving, decidedly tragic turn.
"Faust Projekt," presented by the Odyssey Theatre's Resident Company Koan at the Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., W. Los Angeles. Wed.-Thurs. 7 p.m., Fri.-Sat. 8 p.m., Sun. 7 p.m. June 2-July 22. $19.50-23.50. (310) 477-2055.