Abridging a global literary classic is a tricky business, especially one so imbued with national pride as Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s “Faust,” a tome holding the same exalted cultural position in Germany that “Don Quixote” holds in Spain.
That’s part of the reason why Neil Wechsler’s restructuring and adaptation of the legendary (and lengthy, two-part) text – unveiled at the Burchfield Penney Art Center on Friday evening as part of "A Musical Feast" – could, at first blush, be counted as either an exercise in bravery or in foolhardiness.
What Wechsler has done by compressing a massive amount of classic material and squeezing it down to a relatively quick-paced production (some 90 uninterrupted minutes) is impressive.
Getting all of the author’s concepts to fit into a compact car when he designed them for a fleet of carriages can’t have been easy.
The possibilities of context being lost and interest sustained posed problems for such an ambitious undertaking, but the translation chosen for the production seemed idiomatic.
That was a plus, because crafting the poetics of Goethe’s text in such a way that it successfully breaks through a language barrier for non-native listeners or readers is a rare thing.
Strongly articulated performances by David Oliver as Faust and Vincent O’Neill as the devilish Mephistopheles carry the main load with a supporting cast of Josephine Hogan and Kurt Guba handling various roles and tasks, helping to flesh out the bones of the revamped text and in some cases announcing scene changes.
While the whole “God bets Mephistopheles that Faust can resist worldly blandishments” premise is redolent of Job’s story in the Old Testament, Goethe put a few twists in the narrative name when Icarus, Paris, Helen of Troy, and more are introduced in the rarely performed second section of the epic.
There’s also some humor present, albeit a brief moment between the different chapters.
One also needs to be aware that time isn’t exactly linear in this play although it isn’t as evident initially as it is in the recent movie “Arrival.”
Nathan Heidelberger created a musical score, played by a sextet of talented musicians and conducted by Matthew Chamberlain. The music introduces, underlies, and accents the wordplay of the actors, weaving between the vocals, sometimes in support but occasionally serving as a sonic break between scenes.
The whole evening demands attention for its efforts and, to be sure, there are rewards for those who do so.
Friday night’s performance augurs well for those attending on Saturday.