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A Faustian bargain at 90 minutes

Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal

When performed in its entirety, the telling of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s “Faust” takes about 24 hours.

But Glen Williamson promises not to keep you that long.

The New York City actor has taken both parts of Goethe’s classic, a “universally human” tragedy about a scholar named Faust who gives the devil his soul in exchange for unlimited knowledge and whatever else he desires, and made it into a 90-minute story.

His one-man show “Beat the Devil! (Faust, the Whole Story)” takes Goethe’s series of part-plays and part-long form poems, and turns them into a fairy tale-like storytelling. Williamson will perform the show in Santa Fe this weekend.

Williamson’s show has won awards twice at the off-Broadway United Solo Theater Festival, for Best Adaptation in 2011 and Best Revival in 2017. He has been performing “Beat the Devil!” around the country for 20 years.

Its creation stems from the months he spent in college as an exchange student in Dornach, Switzerland. The then-21-year-old worked as a stagehand at the Goetheanum, the only place in the world to regularly perform the uncut, two-part production of “Faust.”

“It’s a nine-play repertory, like doing nine Shakespeare plays in repertory,” he said. “People would go and be there for a week. There were some days where there would be a matinee and an evening performance. There may be one day off between Part 1 and Part 2.”

Part 1 of the playwright’s rendition of this centuries-old German legend, which includes a romance between Faust and a woman named Gretchen, was written in 1808. Part 2, a less commonly used part of the story that involves Faust traveling through time, was published in 1832, after Goethe’s death.

The experience in Switzerland made Williamson fall in love with Goethe’s work. That makes sense, considering he saw the entire production four times, not including rehearsals and other workshops dedicated to it.

Turning Goethe’s long-winded work into a story lasting an hour and a half – including intermission – was a large undertaking, he says. Williamson sticks to the main characters, including Faust and the evil Mephistopheles, the demon who convinces Faust to sell his soul. The paring down eliminated various subplots and extra characters that Goethe used often in his five-act Part 2.

Williamson noted there are stretches in Part 2 in which Faust is absent for hours at a time. However, even with the large cuts, “Beat the Devil!” does include a thread in Part 2 that Goethe never wrote down.

Williamson read a footnote to the play that described a scene Goethe intended to write and described to his personal secretary before he died. Though Williamson doesn’t want to give away its contents – he called it a test for “Faust” fans to find it within his version – he said the addition is necessary for the main story. “For anyone who’s tried to read Goethe’s ‘Faust,’ I think what I’m offering is a real gift,” he said. “It’s very hard to read that. It’s a great piece of literature, but you get into Part 2, and it’s really hard to know what’s actually happening, which characters are real … what’s happened to the main character and what’s really at stake. What’s still the plot? What’s the quest?”

Though he does include some direct quotes from the original text, Williamson notes that “Beat the Devil” lacks Goethe’s “stunning” poetry. He hopes people will be inclined to read some of it after hearing his rendition.

The show caters to fans of “Faust” as well as newcomers hearing Goethe’s story for the first time, he said.

Williamson believes that 200 years since the work was created, it’s just as contemporary as it was back then – if not more. He said elements in”Faust” are “astonishingly up to date,” verging on science fiction, citing a plotline that references creating life in test tubes.

But he said the story’s polarities of good versus evil, old and new, masculine and feminine and other eternal themes are what has kept the story relatable, and also deeply personal, for audiences.

“It’s just essentially human,” Williamson said. “It’s about the human being questing for knowledge and fighting evil. You really can’t get more contemporary than that.”