I’m pretty sure a bunch of impossible things are happening in “A Prelude to Faust” at Open Eye Figure Theatre in Minneapolis. A decapitated head speaks. Disembodied hands communicate with us. Candles light themselves. And a supine puppet rises to a seated position without the help of any puppeteers, but don’t quote me on that because I was so bewitched by the alchemy of “Faust” that I may have lost track of the real world for a sec.
The show is subtitled “A Puppet Epic,” and creator Michael Sommers and the ensemble of performers and musicians are not kidding about the “epic” part. Heaven, hell, family, love and the daily grind of survival all are wrapped up in the 75-minute piece, which shifts between the puppet tale of Kasper, a husband and father whom Mephistopheles tempts with an offer to sell his soul, and an embattled human named Everyman (Julian McFaul), who looks like a giant next to the foot-high puppets but whose efforts to navigate the miniature stage suggest he may have become too large for this tiny planet.
More a series of vignettes than a linear tale, “Faust” shifts between vaudeville-like Kasper (“I always get the last word in my marriage. It’s usually ‘yes.’ ”) and McFaul’s Buster Keatonesque Everyman, who gives the show an elegant gravity. That’s especially true when he performs with mini-me Little Man, who is costumed in the same dark suit and white shirt as McFaul. In their scenes, it feels like Everyman is trying to take control of his own life, despite the uncertainty of the world around him. One moment — Everyman whispers something into Little Man’s ear, then the little guy caresses the big guy’s cheek before the two of them clasp hands — gives this sometimes bleak show a sense that self-care may be the first step to humans figuring things out.
Kasper gets there, too (and warns us, “Hold onto your souls, good and tight”), in a production that is less about the certainty of a moral than it is about maintaining what one character calls our “tender feelings” for one another.
It feels like the production’s tiny, perfect details are metaphors for those feelings: Marcus Dilliard’s gorgeous lighting includes miniature footlights, and one scene is lit almost entirely by candles. Michael Koerner’s achingly pretty score, performed live by a four-person band (led by Dave Bicking on clarinet), is a spin on German cabaret. Even the choice of having the puppeteers clearly visible much of the time is a salute to their artistry, an assertion that they’ll dazzle us even if we know exactly what they’re up to.
So, at the end, when we realize that it’s Rick Miller who is operating the Little Man puppet, but then Everyman struggles offstage so McFaul can take over control of his tiny avatar from Miller, it feels like a sign of hope.
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