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The devil wears red velour

In the Berlin Ensemble's new production of "Faust", Bob Wilson and Herbert Grönemeyer add cabaret camp, a full musical score, and more than a little potty humour to Goethe's classic tale.

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Photo by Lucie Jansch

It’s a creative trio that verges on the ridiculous: a literary titan, a beloved pop star and a legendary avant-garde director. Two Germans – Goethe and Herbert Grönemeyer – whose work has been central to this country’s culture, and one Texan, Robert Wilson, who’s spent at least as much time working in Germany as in the United States. So when the two living artists team up to tackle the other’s Faust (Parts I and II, no less) at Berliner Ensemble, the result is a frenetic fever dream, a funhouse rock opera that’s more Rocky Horror than reverent recapitulation of Goethe’s tragic masterpiece, with a Mephistopheles who’s beyond irresistible. The devil wears red velour. And he knows how to yodel.

The approach has already generated some kvetching, with a few critics arguing Wilson’s elaborate puppet show reduces Goethe to cabaret camp. And yes, parts of the four-hour production are bewildering (or overly reliant on potty humour), and there’s less for the intellect than for the eyes and ears. But that’s how Wilson operates, and it’s undeniable he’s a master craftsman. His meticulously crafted tableaux are a high-contrast wonder of light, colour and shape. His actors, their faces painted bright white, move with ritualistic precision across the stage. And they do that while singing tunes from a dizzying variety of genres. Grönemeyer, who worked with Wilson 12 years ago on a production of Leonce und Lena, didn’t just drop a few ditties into the show, but rather composed a full score for an eight-person orchestra. SF Weekly might once have called him “Germany’s Bruce Springsteen,” but here he proves a stylistic omnivore: in addition to soulful soft rock, there’s jazz, swing, tango, courtly classical melodies, a bit of earnest folk, an even smaller bit of rap, and electronic beeps and bloops that sound ripped from an Atari arcade game.

The story hasn’t entirely disappeared amid the carnivalesque proceedings. Wilson has streamlined Goethe’s tale – which, of course, revolves around a scholar who makes a pact with the devil – while also multiplying the performers. That means we get five Fausts, and Gretchen, Faust’s great love, has been tripled. Part I follows the familiar narrative, from the poodle (which here looks more like a gorilla and zips around on a razor scooter) that transforms into Mephistopheles, to the magic potion, to the jewellery Faust uses to win Gretchen.

The second, lesser-known half, is a romp through antiquity: a rapid-fire succession of short skits and constantly shifting sets. We meet a Florentine court – the archbishop has a massive rubber schlong beneath his purple robe, and some gleeful bumping and grinding follows. Helen of Troy and Paris hang out for a while. A couple sphinxlike creatures break into rap. No scenes or characters have much time to develop, but that’s not Wilson’s concern. More important is that the performers – many of them drama students from the Ernst Busch Academy of Dramatic Arts – look like expressionist paintings sprung to life. Even when they’re pacing across the stage as video projections of cheetahs and wildebeests play behind them (your guess is as good as mine), the effect is as mesmerising as it is mystifying.

The undisputed star – indeed, the only performer with much of an individual identity – is Christopher Nell as Mephistopheles. Nell played Tinkerbell in Wilson’s Peter Pan, and here, with his lank reddish mane and hook nose, he’s part hair-metal star, part feral cat, ever so slightly recalling Johnny Depp before Depp became a caricature of himself. (There’s more than a little bit of Tim Burton in Wilson’s aesthetic.) He’s lithe and impish, slinking and stomping and doing a little tap dance. As he winks and grins at the audience, it’s a seduction that’s always effortless, never unctuous. You’d probably sell your soul to him, too.

FAUST I UND II, from May 17  | Berliner Ensemble, Bertolt-Brecht-Platz 1, Mitte, U-Bhf Friedrichstr.