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First Nighter: At the Theater, 'Tis the Season to Be Discerning

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Bet you never thought you'd see the words "Faust" and "circus" in the same sentence. The Vesturport Theatre and the Reykjavik Theatre want to undermine your expectations. The Vesturport members, many of whom are accomplished gymnasts, have a recurring need to turn classic literature into circus events, and at the Brooklyn Academy of Music's Harvey their current target is Faust: A Love Story.

To demonstrate their determination to turn on its head the well-known story about a man making a pact with the Devil for regained youth, the players spend a lot of time turning themselves on their heads. And they're not only following their inclinations within the on-stage set that Axel Johannesson has fixed up to look like an old-age home gussied up for Christmas with a Yuletide-lights-adorned crucifix.

Oh, no, the proof of the Vesturport big-tent love is also manifest in the net stretched over the audience onto which several of the cast members often hurl themselves and on which they then galumph around and from which they sometimes drop. They become their most active in these pursuits during a no-way-short sequence identified as Walpurgisnacht.

It's not exactly anybody's guess what all this has to do with the Faust legend -- which director Gisli Orn Gardarsson adapts with Nina Dogg Filippusdottir, Carl Grose, Bjorn Hlynur Filippusdottir and Vikingur Kristjansson from sources like Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Christopher Marlowe. But as the Vesturport members wallow in the piece -- to virtually non-stop music by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis -- there does appear to be a good deal of artistic indulgence going on that may try spectators' patience.

There is, however, a moral dispensed before the final acrobatic stunt is pulled. It's meant to dawn on the elder Faust figure, once-great actor Asmodeus (Thorsteinn Gunnarsson). But it hits him only after he's youthened and unsuccessfully pursued Margaret stand-in Greta (Unnur Osp Stefansdottir) to the delight of Mephisto (Magnus Jonsson).

The idea is for Asmodeus, as he faces his final years, to understand it was folly to think old age is the time to go after what you've always wanted. That should have occurred decades earlier. Not a bad point to make and maybe worth all the preceding flummery.

***

There are sentimentalists out there -- you know who you are -- happy to spend much of the Christmas season looking for It's a Wonderful Life screenings on television or elsewhere. For them, Anthony E. Palermo has adapted the beloved Frances Goodrich-Albert Hackett-Frank Capra screenplay as a one-hour radio play. At the Irish Repertory Company it works as effectively as an angel placed atop a tree.

Attendees are politely asked to take on the role of a small-town WIRT audience in 1946 and, when the applause sign clicks on, to follow through. Mostly, though, patrons need only enjoy the prevailing joviality of actors Rory Duffy (doubling at the sound-effects counter), Katie Fabel, Kristin Griffith, Ian Holcombe, Peter Maloney and Max Gordon Moore (doing an appealingly unpushed Jimmy Stewart impression), as directed merrily by Charlotte Moore.

David Toser has outfitted the ensemble appropriately, leaning heavily on hats donned and doffed to delineate different characters. And catch the men's ties. Sound designer Zachary Williamson has the period microphones right, although they don't appear to be on. Adapter Palmer has other details correct, too, down to the commercial breaks and the "L. S./M. F. T." slogan ("Lucky Strike Means Fine Tobacco").

To be sure, the entire enterprise is old-fashioned, and thank your blessings for that.

***

The musical Bare, hunkering down at New World Stages, may need a sympathetic nod. Introduced a dozen years ago at L. A.'s Hudson Theatre, it's had several productions since, including one in 2004 at Manhttan's American Theatre of Actors.

For all I know the Jon Hartmere (book and lyrics) and Damon Intrabartolo (composer) tale of two young men falling in love and facing the consequences at a Catholic boarding school called St. Cecilia's may have been way ahead of its time in 2000, but because I've viewed none of its previous incarnations, I'm in no position to say for certain.

What I can report is that in the intervening decade-plus -- when Spring Awakening has stirred Broadway and Glee has heated television screens (both, of course, with Lea Michele) -- poor, put-upon Bare has fallen way behind the curve. There's hardly a plot turn that Glee hasn't worked. There's hardly a choreographed movement Travis Wall calls for that isn't reminiscent of Bill T. Jones's Spring Awakening gesticulations.

The torments that befall straight-appearing jock Jason (Jason Hitt) and lite-in-loafers Peter (Taylor Trensch) are stale now and may even be dated if attitude changes among today's young are taken into account. Nor does much unfamiliar befall Jason's cynical sis Nadia (Barrett Wilbert Weed), Jason-struck Ivy (Elizabeth Judd), Ivy-struck Matt (Gerard Canonico), sympathetic Sister Joan (Missi Pyle) and spiritually-hampered Father Mike (Jerold E. Solomon).

How the title relates to the action remains obscure, as does whatever message the creators want to make about the inhumanity to man and woman of Catholic ideology. (The stained-glass-accented set is by Donyale Werle). Well, maybe it's best that the criticism isn't emphasized any more than it is.

This time around Lynne Shankel is credited with additional music, not that I could tell where it's been added or what, if anything, has been subtracted. Info reaches me that the earlier version was sung-through, and this one isn't.

Apparently, the entire score as originally presented can be accessed on YouTube. But call me coward. Tell me I'm derelict in my duties. I just can't be bothered to catch up. Too much of what's being sung (all of it well) by the entire current 14-member cast now comes across as one long monotonous song, and i just don't want to subject myself to any more of it.