A Marvelous Modern Take on Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus
The Harrowing of Brimstone McReedy is Eldritch Theatre’s modern take on Marlowe’s own Doctor Faustus while being infinitely more engaging and entertaining for the modern audience.
Partnered with Kick & Push, Theatre Kingston’s Storefront Fringe is certainly kicking off the festival with a strong show. The Dora nominee for Best New Play and Best Performance of 2017 follows the titular Brimstone McReedy who shares his daring tale detailing his deal with the devil and its disastrous denouement. Brimstone’s humour and supernatural horrors are splendidly balanced through the use of puppetry, card tricks, magic, and technical ingenuity. Don’t let a recorded performance deter you, this is certainly worth the time it asks for (especially for horror fans)!
Eric Woolfe, both the creator and sole performer of the piece, bombastically draws the audience in with the energy and charisma of conman Brimstone McReedy. Woolfe employs a masterful understanding of the character and effortlessly teases the participants, hoodwinks the audience, and regales the intimate stage house with his gripping tale of deceit, love, and greed. He must also be commended for his exemplary handling of the magic which is all thanks to/can be attributed to “Magic” Mike Segal (magic coach) who should also be applauded while praising Woolfe’s mystical performance.
More impressively, as the themes of the play developed, a metanarrative regarding the cosmic powers at play came into sight through Woolfe’s handling of the puppets, instilling a deep sense of existential horror which continued to build until the climax of the piece. At first, the puppets seemed to only be present to facilitate this being a one person show, rather than having an artistic or greater purpose. This assumption, while understandable, is far from correct. The most touching, terrifying, and tumultuous moments were performed through these handmade puppets and they flawlessly established clear and vibrant individual characters.
Delightfully, Kaitlin Hickey’s masterful utilization of shadow box lighting, intentional darkness, and frightful projections were a stunning addition to an already alluring show. For a horror-themed production, it was exhilarating to feel the stage swallow you whole and for images to appear in the darkness as if you were emerging from a tunnel. Without a doubt though, the shining star of this production is the sound design, an oft unsung hero of modern theatre. No sound, ambient or otherwise, was wasted in Jude Haines’ design. Recurring motifs of drones, foghorns, and blistering winds induced a trance-like state chilling the bones of any soul listening. Haines impactfully and invisibly guides the audience through Woolfe’s narrative with an impeccable employment of creative choices. Before Woolfe tells you that something ominous is coming, Haines has already crept upon you with inscrutable creativity reaffirming that yes, you should be afraid… Needless to say, this performance would be qualitatively less without Haines on the design team.
There are a few, albeit small, blemishes for this otherwise splendid jaunt through Lovecraft lane; it’s a recording of an older performance (not live) making it harder to be engaged, immersed, and focused due to technical issues. Focus issues with the camera caused massive visual barriers, which is highly disappointing for a show that relies so heavily on magic, puppetry, and projections. Although rare, distortion was caused when sound was misdirected or peaked, detracting from the tone that Woolfe and team had worked hard to cultivate.
Shattering the immersion a live audience could be enraptured in is, unfortunately, common in online, digital, and recorded theatre. Fortunately, these issues were completely dwarfed by the carefully curated atmosphere that the show builds. Without a doubt, the performance will draw back any wandering or flustered minds that have lost focus during these technical discrepancies.
Although this play was performed at the Grand Theatre two years ago, little appears to have changed in its story, production, or direction. I have to ask, why is a recorded production with practically no changes from 2019 in the Kick & Push Festival now back in the Storefront Fringe this year? Given that Brimstone McReedy represents the politically problematic white male of the 1800’s, the play fails to observe or respond to how the political landscape of Kingston and Canada has changed in the last two years. Even if the goal was to make McReedy a hard-to-root-for anti-hero, there are several moments in the play where critical examinations about colonization, the displacement of Indigenous communities, and the appropriation of culture regarding mythologies and faiths could be made.
As a fan of horror myself, I felt that Woolfe and his team explored the themes and conventions of the genre, but I do wish they allowed the audience to sit in terror a while longer. The tension was constantly cut with a joke, a trick, or a new story. It felt as though the creative team were paying homage to Poe, Lovecraft, and other influential horror writers rather than creating actual horror on stage. These two issues in tandem left me hungry for a true scare, but instead, I was left unsatisfied.
With all of the above in mind (and with special consideration that recorded digital and “On Demand” theatre has become more popular during the pandemic), The Harrowing of Brimstone McReedy is a wondrous and entertaining performance with plenty of fun easter eggs for any fan of Lovecraft, the Cthulhu Mythos, and the occult, and is certainly deserving of any theatregoers attention during the Storefront Fringe.
The Harrowing of Brimstone McCreedy is available on demand from August 2-15, 2021. Check out the Storefront Fringe for tickets and more information.