Iowa City Community Theatre dazzles with impressive live virtual presentation of ‘Doctor Faustus’

Iowa City Community Theatre’s virtual performance of ‘The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus,’ which premiered this weekend, is a comedic tragedy telling the story of a scholar who trades his soul to the devil for knowledge in the dark magical arts.


Jeff Sigmund

Doctor Faustus played by Elinor Levin. The play was put on by Iowa City Community Theatre over zoom on Friday, April 9,2021.

Parker Jones, Arts Reporter

Intricate digital backgrounds, comically exaggerated costumes, and energized performances — Iowa City Community Theatre’s live virtual performance of The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus was a uniquely impressive one.

Presented from April 9 to April 11 through the theatre’s website, the Renaissance-era play took on a refreshing contemporary life both through a Zoom format, as well as each actors’ modernized takes on their characters. Originally performed in 1592, the tragedy was written by English playwright Christopher Marlowe.

Directed by Iowa City Community Theatre’s Will Asmus, Doctor Faustus tells the story of a German scholar dissatisfied with the limits of traditional knowledge. Hungry for more, he chooses to learn magic and the dark arts instead. After summoning a devil named Mephistophilis, who aptly warns him of the dangers of hell and consorting with Lucifer, Faustus exchanges his soul for 24 years of service from the devil. At first, his satanic servant and newfound powers bring him fame, but the scholar eventually must face his payment and imminent, grisly damnation.

While the virtual format of the performance made for some awkward transitions and small technical difficulties here and there, both the cast and crew made an impressive effort to keep the show running smoothly. Actors would periodically turn on their cameras when it was their turn to speak, accompanied by sound effects played through the shared computer audio of one of the crew members.

The props and interactions between characters were also unexpectedly nifty despite the remoteness of each performer. Sock puppets were used in place of more extravagant characters, like the multiple demons that Faustus encounters, as well as the comedic ventures of the scholar’s servant Wagner when he learns his own bit of magic to turn a few stable hands into animals.

Additionally, the detail and specificity of the Zoom backgrounds made for a much more visually interesting performance than what would be possible on a real-life stage. This also applies to the costumes made for each character, which combined real life clothing with virtual Zoom effects that gave each character a lot of personality.

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Of course, the characters were brought to light by the spirited and dynamic performances that made the digital performance that much more entertaining. Some scenes between Doctor Faustus (Elinor Levin) and Mephistophilis (McKayla Sturtz) were quite long and required a lot of attention to fully understand the Shakespearean-esque language, but both actresses’ performances were so exuberant that they made it much easier to follow.

One scene in particular where the backgrounds, costuming, and acting all came together occurred when Lucifer (Nick Kilburg) summoned the seven deadly sins, including Pride (Brooke Willis), Covetousness (Joseph Dobrian), Gluttony (Kalvin Goodlaxon), Envy (Alex Mckay), Wrath (Josh Sazon), Sloth (Alan Ridgeway), and Lust (Sarahann Kolder). This scene in particular gave each actor a chance to exaggerate their characters, with Sloth and Envy in particular being comically personified with Zoom filters.

In all, Iowa City Community Theatre’s production of Doctor Faustus was impressive, thought-provoking, and an overall charmingly entertaining performance.