By Molly Shimko
The lofty goal of condensing the tale of Goethe’s “Faust” into one roughly 90‑minute production is no small task, as Glen Williamson relays to the audience in his immediately engaging, warm and welcoming introduction to his piece, “Beat the Devil!” Miraculously enough, Mr. Williamson follows through with his promise and unfolds for us the magical story of Faust, in his search for truth, knowledge, meaning and beauty, and his not‑so‑trusty sidekick, the devil Mephistopheles, who, as a consequence of his bet with God, offers Faust the bargain of all he could desire in exchange for his soul.
Mr. Williamson dexterously shepherds the audience through the winding tale, along the way introducing such characters as Gretchen, with whom Faust experiences love and loss; the emperor, the source of Faust’s fame; and Homunculus, a truly bizarre creature that manifests as a tiny man with no body who floats along in a beaker (and from whom Mr. Williamson astutely extracts comedic material). Always taking an aside to the audience when needed, and giving fair warning when the plot takes a turn for the confusing, he guides us through the journey from start to finish, leaving us with a satisfying conclusion to Faust’s fate.
With very few props in a sparse black box theater, Mr. Williamson ushered in the play proper with the chiming of a bell, a tolling that felt appropriate to his role as the gatekeeper of a story rife with references to church bells. His bringing back the bells intermittently to denote the end of one section and the start of another helped the audience divide the meandering tale into discernable sections. Mr. Williamson made good use of his few simple choices in set and costume, such as the billowing sleeves of his shirt, which created an apropos dramatic flair when he raised his arms as the affable God, and made for compelling and affecting makeshift wings whenever Mephistopheles took to the sky with Faust.
While Mr. Williamson nimbly moved through all the characters of the story, he shined most in his portrayal of Mephistopheles, cleverly using a bright red under‑light to give his devil a wicked glow. Especially noteworthy was Mr. Williamson’s styling of his hair to appear as little devil horns when lit as Mephistopheles. Beyond this neatly tricky staging was Mr. Williamson’s ability to draw the humor out of the devilish fiend and make him a lively and comedic presence in what is otherwise, in many parts, a dark and serious tale. Most amusing was Mr. Williamson’s depiction of Mephistopheles’ side quest to find a body to use in Ancient Greece ‑ as the devil is most uncomfortable treading in a religious realm outside his own ‑ where he ultimately borrows the body of one of the Graeae Sisters, taking with him their famous tooth and eye.
While the pacing of the show could seem, at times, a little on the slow side, this felt more to be a sign of the care taken in telling this story, and an intentional harkening to a more old‑school style of presenting a folktale. What was always clear was Mr. Williamson’s passion and love for the story and his earnest desire to share this magnificent tale with others.
With “Beat the Devil!,” Mr. Williamson takes the audience on an enjoyable epic journey of humankind’s search for satisfaction and truth, bringing Faust to life in such a way that it is tangible and relatable to a modern audience, and skillfully highlights such simple but prudent reminders as “people make mistakes” and that ultimately “whoever strives and never gives up can be saved.”
“Beat the Devil!”
Performed by Glen Williamson
September 20th at 9 PM
Photo Credit: Courtesy of the Production
2019 United Solo Theater Festival
410 West 42nd Street
New York City
MOLLY SHIMKO is an artist and writer originally from Vermont. After obtaining her MFA in Musical Theater from The Boston Conservatory, she moved down to Brooklyn, where she currently free-lances as an editor and illustrator, and works for the New York Public Library and The Juilliard School. Most recently, Molly co-wrote and directed The Fling LP, a new musical play, for The New York Theater Festival Summerfest.