The new show at Open Eye Figure Theatre came from Satan’s Anus.
“That’s what we call it,” says Michael Sommers of the messy basement where the Minneapolis theater stores props, sets and puppets. In the midst of a cellar cleanup last winter, Open Eye leaders found elements of “A Prelude to Faust,” which is a signature piece for several reasons.
It was a Walker Art Center commission. It was Open Eye’s first full-length work in 1998. It toured to prestigious festivals around the world. And it inaugurated the company’s current home in 2007 in a production that the Star Tribune’s Graydon Royce dubbed “exquisite.”
This will be Open Eye’s fourth “Faust,” which borrows bits of Christopher Marlowe’s and Johann von Goethe’s versions of the myth about a man who makes a pact with the devil. Sommers, who created “Faust,” says it took 20 years to figure out it’s about love.
“I thought when we tucked it away in 2007: ‘Wow, we really found out what this is about,’ ” says Sommers, perched next to the show’s miniature, handcrafted proscenium stage-within-a-stage. “But then, getting the script out again this year, I realized that I’m learning a lot more. This is a love story and that was always kind of there, but I didn’t know it.”
Veering from bawdy laughs to dark despair, “A Prelude to Faust” braids three threads: Julian McFaul plays Everyman, the lone human, who winds around the tiny stage, searching for his place in the world. The set’s hidden doors and windows reveal disembodied hands that tell their own story. And the Faustian puppet-play-within-the-play offers a main character, Kasper, who is tempted by Mephistopheles to sell his soul and say goodbye to his loved ones.
It may be the people Sommers loves who shifted his views on the play, which previously seemed to hinge on the decision to surrender one’s soul.
“There’s this moment when Mephistopheles feels love for the first time and then angels take Faust away. So, thinking about that, well, I have grandchildren now. I’m thinking about whatever the future is: tick, tock, how much time is left on the clock?” says Sommers, 63.
Others aren’t sure this pared-down “Faust” is so lovey.
Sue Haas, Open Eye’s artistic producing director and Sommers’ wife, thinks love is mostly subtext. McFaul says “Faust” feels darker in the wake of reports about the need to address climate change immediately.
“When I’m trying to live that particular character of Everyman, he’s crawling around the stage and it’s a question of trying to survive,” says McFaul, who has acted in all four productions and who Sommers says is so integral that he wouldn’t do it without him.
Going back to his roots
Sommers is in the midst of other big changes. He’s been making paintings and sculptures — he recently had his first gallery show — and he’s planning a sabbatical from theater for several months.
That’s why he thinks “Faust” is a neat bookend: It is both the first Open Eye show and, for now, his last. (Although: “I would not be surprised if he comes up with a new show in two or three years,” says Haas. “That’s my prediction.”)
Sommers is anti-nostalgia but, in a way, this “Faust” forced him to collaborate with his 43-year-old self.
“I couldn’t make this today. It’s somewhat innocent, old-school,” says Sommers. “It has this live four-piece orchestra and Michael Koerner’s beautiful music but I believe I draw from a long tradition, and this feels like I’m going back to a tradition I learned from, before I made my own. This is like the roots of my work.”
Marveling at the three months spent making the “Faust” puppets 20 years ago, Sommers talks about being quicker and more instinctive now, and he recalls this show as a turning point: “The piece I did after this [‘Elijah’s Wake’], I wanted to erase this way of working completely: the jumps in scale, how the set reveals things that propel the narrative. I just thought, ‘I’ve got to stop doing this. It would get too easy. There would be tricks I would start to rely on.’ So, after this show, I went in a completely new direction.”
The techniques may have changed, but the atmosphere of Open Eye has not. Having worked in toxic places, Sommers says he and Haas vowed that Open Eye would be a healthy space. According to McFaul, it is.
“I loved working with Mike right away,” says McFaul, who was introduced to Sommers by a mutual friend. “He’s always been wildly open to me, and other people he works with, giving him suggestions.”
Even without Sommers involved in the day-to-day, that will continue to be the case at Open Eye — with, for instance, a new piece from Joel Sass next year.
‘We do it and we’re done’
Sommers is eager to see the future of Open Eye, which could include work from his University of Minnesota mentees (the three performers in “Faust” with McFaul all were students).
He’s also eager to clear the decks. So the ornate “Faust” set won’t return to Satan’s Anus.
“The deal was we do it and we’re done. Then, we can get rid of it,” says Sommers.
It’s not clear how that will happen, but Haas is thinking bonfire: “We could make a big ceremony out of it. There’s something about getting rid of things with a fire, acknowledging that they are of value but that they don’t have a value in a material sense anymore.”
The puppets won’t perish; Open Eye’s leaders are not monsters. In fact, when you spend any amount of time with the Twin Cities master of figure theater, you realize why that basement got so stuffed with ephemera: It’s tough to pitch things when you could view almost any object as a puppet with a story to tell.
A clarinet that sings when a musician manipulates it with her fingers? Sounds like a puppet. A telephone that connects you to the world? A puppet. A foam finger at a football game? A disembodied hand writing on a chalkboard? Piano keys? Puppets all.
And the brushes and other tools that Michael Sommers will use to create paintings and sculptures in the coming months? He is taking a break from Open Eye, but, as directed by Sommers’ brain, they will be varieties of puppets, too.