The devil has always been in the details when it comes to the fable of Faust.
Never has that been truer than in Kirsten Brandt's visually arresting but ultimately uneven incarnation of "The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus" at San Jose Repertory Theatre. So much attention is paid to the spectacle here, from the shadow puppets to the shimmering video projections, that not enough weight is given to the emotional power of the show.
Though rigorously intelligent as well as brimming with high-tech eye-candy, this two hour and 20 minute incarnation of Christopher Marlowe's seminal 16th-century drama connects with the eye, but not the heart. As a result, for all its beauties, this world premiere adaptation of "Faustus" never quite comes to life.
That's a pity because this cautionary tale, which is steeped in the lure of the supernatural, remains endlessly fascinating. Faust (the stalwart Mark Anderson Phillips) is a scholar kissed by the curse of narcissus. He's so smitten with his overweening pride that he giddily sells his soul to Satan in exchange for 24 years of unlimited power and knowledge.
Though the hounds of hell nip at his heels, he gads about the world, dallying with the innocent Marguerite (Halsey Varady), mocking the powers that be, from the Pope (Rachel Harker) to the Emperor (Varady), and laughing in the face of Lucifer (Harker). He makes the impish Mephistopheles (Lyndsy Kail) into his minion and blithely wiles away the time, even as perdition approaches.
This descent into hell is framed by electric images: An angel beats its white wings against a blue sky. A headless corpse lurches into a blood-red abyss. The flames of the inferno dance in the light.
From start to finish, Brandt, a nimble director ("Rabbit Hole," "Legacy of Light") artfully casts Faustus' fall into high multimedia relief. The fusion of cutting edge and medieval is potent indeed, and David Lee Cuthbert's lighting and projections are nothing short of ravishing.
But all of this pageantry also distracts from the craft of the actors. The commedia dell'arte interludes lack zing. The puppetry lacks whimsy. There's little electricity in the interchanges between Faustus and the angels on his shoulder, and the confrontations with Lucifer, a sort of S&M diva, lack intensity.
It's particularly unfortunate that the bawdy bits fall flat because it's a clever concept to bedevil Faust with women at every turn. If the subtext were more erotic, it would add zest to the Faustian pact.
As it is, all of the supporting characters are played by three women who fly from one role to another. But sometimes they morph through so many roles that it's hard to etch each of them fully and that undercuts the dramatic tension.
Kail does rivet as Mephistopheles inhabits each of the seven deadly sins. Varady (a San Jose Stage regular) teases welcome notes of wry comedy from a host of small roles. And Phillips is never less than fully committed as Faustus wrestles with his fiery fate, but the production still suffers from numerous static patches.
To be fair, although Marlowe's ("Edward II," "The Jew of Malta") morality play is undeniably erudite, it is also dense, challenging and even cumbersome. Marlowe, a Shakespeare contemporary reputed to be a spy as well as a playwright, did not write easily accessible plays by any means.
Conjuring his poetic and visual alchemy is a tall order that's almost as dangerous as dancing with the devil. Brandt's adaptation wisely streamlines the narrative so that a universe of demons is played by only three actors, and she projects parts of the text above the stage so no one gets lost amid the shadows of the legend. Those virtues just aren't quite enough to redeem this "Faustus."
By Christopher Marlowe, directed and adapted by Kirsten Brandt
Through: June 2
Where: San Jose Repertory Theatre, 101 Paseo de San Antonio
Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes (one intermission)
Tickets: $29-$74, 408-367-7255. www.sjrep.com