MR FAUST & DR JABBERWOCKY: A steampunk fire-fable

Dunedin Gasworks Museum, Dunedin

14/03/2013 - 17/03/2013

Dunedin Fringe 2013

Production Details

The FireBugs present the archetypal tale of power and temptation. Follow Faust as he sells his soul to the demonic Dr Jabberwocky in exchange for the delights of the Seven Deadly Sins.

Featuring fire-performers, live music and a Bandersnatch in the steampunk inferno of Dunedin’s Gasworks.

Will Faust outwit the Devil or be damned forever? 

Dunedin Gasworks Museum
March 14, 15, 16, 17;
6:30pm, 8:30pm  

50 mins

Fabulous imagineering

Review by Terry MacTavish 16th Mar 2013

Dunedin’s Fringe Festival is off to a flaming start. First the Launch in the Octagon, where more than a thousand were dazzled by the breath-taking aerial silk performance of Rochelle Brophy and her students, and now the thrilling steampunk fire-fable, Mr Faust and Dr Jabberwocky.  

This glorious union of Steampunk, Firebugs and the Gasworks Museum is a three-way made in heaven. (Or possibly hell.) I can’t imagine a better combination to interpret the medieval legend of Faust, who in his thirst for knowledge sells his soul to the devil, in return sampling such dubious delights as a parade of the Seven Deadly Sins. The atmospheric site has international significance: it is the world’s best example of a town gasworks, and celebrates 150 years this October.

I’m not at all sure that I really get steampunk, but I love it anyway. Such marvellous eccentricity, the crazy fantasy and inherent contradiction of a retro-futuristic world, born of Victorian science fiction; and oh the splendid costumes! It is theatre in itself, but in this production, blends beautifully with the gleaming machinery of the old gasworks and the whirling flames of the fire dancers. As if this lush combo was not enough, we get splashes of Lewis Carroll, with belly dancers, morris dancers, musicians and singers: indeed, at least thirty overwhelmingly enthusiastic performers.

We are welcomed by writer Jonathan Cweorth in role as the Prologue, giving a paean of praise to the world of the Victorians, then showing us the one man unsatisfied by its glories: Mr Faust, played with pizzazz by a dapper Miguel Nitis. Faust is enticed into his fateful bargain not by Mephistopheles, but by Dr Jabberwocky, a marvellously oleaginous Craig Storey in top hat, spats and red satin waistcoat.

We follow Faust from one amazing room to the next, as his journey, experiencing all Seven Deadly Sins, provides a dramatic context for the impressive skills of the cast.  Xanthe Naylor is a saucy Lust in striped stockings and button boots, flanked by seductively undulating belly dancers and a lovely, melancholy Helen of Troy (Rachel Lundy), while talented dancer KBG Purple is quite riveting as a feline Bandersnatch.

Witches writhe in Gluttony’s Kitchen, aptly situated within a display of vintage gas cookers, and sinister Avarice suppresses his slaves among pounding and pumping machinery. This is my first visit to the gasworks, and it is a revelation. Industry does not attract me at all, but this building is truly beautiful, the perfect set. Enhanced by fire and strings of light, the venue for each scene is exciting in itself, the last an amazing Stonehenge circle of columns, where the mouth of hell gapes for its prey. 

Because steampunk people are a curiously powerful sub-culture who actually live the dream, the performers are focused and intense, and there is a real sense that we have entered their world. Certainly they watch us, crouching and snarling, wielding their flaming torches, as if we were the intruders.

The elegantly anachronistic costumes and the elaborate masks are gorgeous: black and white stripes, feathers, corsets, bustles and goggles. The music by Elena Berg and SirenSuffragette is spine tingling, and the special effects genuinely thrilling. The twirling flames are sometimes too close for comfort (future performances should ensure more separation for spectators), but the audience is enthralled, particularly by Fredrik Soderstrom’s spectacular fiery finale as Pride.

The struggle between good and evil for possession of the soul of a human being is pretty heavy stuff, touching the deepest level of our psyche. Kit Marlowe’s Faust debates the great issues with fellow scholars, and probes the tenets of Christianity. Cweorth’s focus seems more humanitarian than religious, with some political satire tossed in, but it is as a spectacle and true theatrical experience that this interpretation is so exhilarating.

As a starry-eyed member of the Gasworks Volunteers testified, this talented group of ‘imagineers’ has come up with a stunning way of introducing the public to their museum, delighting the eye and firing the imagination, and even, at the conclusion, ingeniously drawing the audience into Faust’s fable. Fabulous indeed.
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