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A Two-Man Cast of Thousands

"Doctor Faustus" is promised a budget empire of hair dryers and Helen of Troy.

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As the name suggests, Richmond Shakespeare Theatre usually sticks to work by the Bard, but its performance of "Doctor Faustus" is timely for three reasons.

First: Christopher Marlowe, who wrote the play in the late-1500s, was a contemporary of Shakespeare's. (Some historians go so far as to suggest they were the same person.)

Second: Assuming for the moment that Marlowe was his own man, he was a good friend of Sir Walter Raleigh's, whose colonial experiment at Roanoke Island, now in North Carolina, was not nearly as successful as the one we are celebrating this year with the — all together now — 400th anniversary of the first permanent English settlement at Jamestown.

Third: The main character, Dr. Faustus, sells his soul to the devil in exchange for magical powers, making the story an ideal conversation piece for the Acts of Faith Festival, an examination of theology and drama various Richmond churches and theater groups participate in from January through March.

The production succeeds at making the play easy to talk about despite the challenge of interpreting the flowery English. But the cast manages to harness the emotional currents that flow through the words and illustrate the ideas for the audience despite their arcane syntax.

This takes stamina, especially with only two actors. David White plays a sophomoric Doctor Faustus who forgoes the answers offered up in philosophy, science, law and religion in exchange for magic, at the cost of his soul. Graham Bierce's Mephistopheles, sent by Lucifer, conjures an array of apparitions — the pope, Helen of Troy — to make Faustus think he has supernatural powers. Birce plays all those roles, too.

The stars of the show, though, came and went before the audience ever arrived. Tony Lombard and Angela Pirko, the stage manger and prop mistress, help tell the story by resourcefully concocting wry caricature markers out of the mess in Faustus' study.

Faustus makes out with Helen of Troy, represented by a long-necked Styrofoam wig form, and builds a spirit-summoning machine out of Christmas lights and a hair drier. Props are tucked under the mattress, beneath the bed and up Mephistopheles' pant legs. The audience becomes kids in front of an Advent calendar, waiting to see what crafty prop stunt the actors would pull next.

In this production, Mephistopheles is selling Faustus, not with fantastic displays of magic, but with the much more economical use of illusion. With two actors and some Styrofoam playing a cast of thousands, it's a trick that works just as well on the audience. S

"Doctor Faustus" runs through February 24 with Thursday, Friday and Saturday shows at 8 p.m. and an additional 2 p.m. matinee on Saturday at Second Presbyterian Church, 5 North Fifth Street. Ticket prices vary. For more information call 1-866-BARD-TIX or visit www.richmond shakespeare.com. S

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