Performer Bridge Markland, born in Berlin the same year the Berlin Wall was erected, has spent a large part of her life trying to knock a few walls down. A pioneer of drag and transgender performance in Germany, Markland has made innovation an important part of her repertoire. Nowhere is this more evident than her one-woman “Faust in a Box,” an irreverent version of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Faust that mixes theater, dance, and puppets which she performed Feb. 12 at Pomona College.
A quick, spoiler-free rundown of Faust: a man, Faust, can ask the Devil for anything he wants, but if he is ever satisfied, then he dies and the Devil gets his soul. The plot is simple enough, complicated mostly by the introduction of a love interest, the young Gretchen.
Markland’s version of the classic German work represents a departure from typical performances, which include screaming ghouls roaming through the audience, a general sense of gloom and doom, and all the trappings of what is generally considered Very Serious Theater (VST). Markland’s show—a combination of puppets, American pop music, Barbie dolls, and one extremely talented and well-deployed human tongue—should be the laughingstock that VST expects it to be. And it would be a laughingstock, if it weren’t so damn good.
In an interview several days before the Feb. 12 show, Markland expressed resentment toward the prevailing attitude of seriousness in German theater. She said she prefers theater with a bit less gravitas.
“Hey! We’re having fun here, it’s a show! Let’s also be a little bit dirty and have fun,” she said. “Actors are supposed to move you but also make you go ‘Ah!’ when something lively has happened.”
And the “ah”s did come, in force. The audience, however, forgot to laugh in the first couple scenes of the show, when we are presented with Faust singing along to rock-and-roll ballads in a way that not only entertains, but also elucidates the plot at key points and is almost scarily relevant at every turn. I often found myself wondering if American musicians had for the past 60 years conspired to produce only music that was relevant to Faust.
It was only after revealing Faust’s existential angst, in which he complains about his inability to be satisfied by means of lip-syncing “Satisfaction” by the Rolling Stones while brandishing worms in our faces in anguish, that the audience realized it was okay to laugh. Many toys, tricks, and tongue flicks later, Markland was in command of an audience that had found itself witness not to an abstract and alien performance, but rather to an avant-garde performance—a performance that was inclusive, relatable, and enjoyable while experimenting with new methods.
Even the lighting crew was unprepared for Markland’s liveliness, frantically raising and dimming the houselights in an attempt to guess when she was about to execute one of her periodic fourth-wall breaks to jump into the audience to ruffle one especially uncomfortable-looking audience member’s hair.
After intermission, Markland continued her performance and extensive puppeteering—sometimes even assuming the role of puppet, herself, rendered mute by her nearly exclusive use of lip-syncing and thus communicating primarily through physical movement. The show ended with the same good quality with which it began, and a short Q&A was delivered afterward by a wigged Markland, whose prosthetic pigtails somehow did not detract from her responses.
“Faust in a Box” was excessively good—better than it needed to be. Yet the show’s most important element was not the box, or the puppets, or the pop music, or the skillful transitioning between characters. The key element was surprise, the surprise of a room of Very Serious Theatergoers presented with a great performance that can be enjoyed by people who have not read Faust in German 14 times. Markland’s idea that that good, serious theater need not be boring, heavy, esoteric, and sleep-inducing is an idea that I think all theatergoers should come to appreciate.
Alec Long PO ’17 studies philosophy, politics, and economics. He is president of the Yellow Shorts Breakfast Club improv group. He can live on a diet of pure peanut butter.