'Prelude to Faust': Creepy puppets get existential, leading to a weird -- and good! -- time

Bruce Silcox

Bruce Silcox

Open Eye Figure Theatre’s Michael Sommers creates work in an old tradition.

A Prelude to Faust

Open Eye Figure Theatre

His macabre puppet shows evoke the spirit of the pre-industrial era, when you’d gather around a fire and the group’s best storyteller would adapt an ancient tale, sprinkling ribald references among moral lessons as familiar characters made their way through perpetually evolving plots. At once earthy and esoteric, Sommers’ dreamlike work casts a unique spell.

A Prelude to Faust is one of the Minneapolis puppet master’s signature works. Originally commissioned by the Walker Art Center in 1998, Faust was revived to inaugurate the company’s current Phillips storefront space in 2007. It’s now back for what writer/director/designer Sommers calls a “final 20th anniversary production.”

While the play is packed with references to its 19th-century source material, you don’t need to brush up your Goethe to get the gist of Faust. Got a soul? The devil wants it, and he’s willing to negotiate. The good (er, bad) doctor only makes a few cameos in Sommers’ show, understandably regretful regarding his choices. The main plot, such as it is, follows the shameless Kasper (Julian McFaul), who’s engaged to clean up after the departed Faust.

Stumbling upon a volume of magic, Kasper realizes that he can summon unholy forces—but he’s sure that he can outsmart the devil’s minions.

Having satisfied his own needs, Kasper decides to do his stein-clutching friend Marmoset (Ben Shaw) a solid and hook him up with a lover via demonic intercession. (Next time you get frustrated with Tinder, consider the alternative.) Eventually, Satan loses patience and comes to claim his due.

Kasper’s story alternates with bleak episodes featuring McFaul as the only non-puppet character: a long-suffering “Everyman” who waits for sustenance—both physical and spiritual—alongside an equally melancholy mini-me.

It’s all very weird and highly allegorical, with lots for philosophers and Germanists to chew on. Faust has something for everyone, though, in the intricate grotesqueries Sommers has crafted to play their parts on a multi-layered stage set, as disembodied human hands come through tiny doors and write mysteriously mutating messages in chalk. Throughout, Michael Koerner’s original score is performed by a live four-member band lurking in the shadows at stage right.

There’s a gorgeous physicality to Sommers’ work: He doesn’t take shortcuts, and it shows. The show is full of real flames, glasses of smoke, fascinatingly (if, often, appallingly) detailed creatures, and ingenious tricks. It’s an unforgettable vision, with an ultimately humane sensibility that celebrates those who can embrace their fellow mortals, warts and all. Like Slug said, God loves ugly.