Faust. Us.

The Coho Theatre, 2257 NW Raleigh, 232-7072, Thurs-Sat 8 pm, Sun 7 pm, through Jan 17, $10-18

T he classic tale of Dr. Faust has been reworked in a double-teaming of Stark Raving Theatre and Theatre Vertigo, two of the most energetic and ambitious theater companies in Portland. Local playwright Joseph Fisher transplanted the 19th-century mad scientist into the shoes of a 21st-century billionaire software designer. Faust (Darius Pierce) is the inventor of a virtual reality so intense that one can enjoy the dawn of time or the end of the world. The computer geek-cum-philosopher ends up taking an existential tour into the very core of himself, and is faced with angels, demons, fairies, and, strangest of all, Frenchmen.

Where some actors put on accents and airs, Darius Pierce makes gestures with his heart, convincing the audience that his very essence is on trial. Faust is encountered by the demon Mephistopheles (Neal Starbird), a sort of "soul salesman" with horns and hotpants, and a trio of Archangels (April Magnusson, Keith Cable, Siouxsie Suarez) hell-bent against the devil.

But Faust's biggest challenge is in the face of a very mortal woman. When Faust submerges himself into unrequited love for Gretchen, a torch-singing ingénue (Nanette Pettit), the pain really begins. Gretchen is a spotlight ghost with a microphone, like the faraway-eyed sirens of David Lynch's world. Director and composer Matt Zrebski's layered, submarine score brightens the dim scenes, but works best when it casts a terrifying shadow over the play.

Fisher's script is intensely clever, even if some of the deconstructive tricks and personal references seem, well, Faustian. The introduction of Becky-Sue the Fairy Princess (Julie Starbird) into the battle of good-versus-evil looks too much like a plea for third party politics, and the fairies look fresh from a bongload of Jerry Garcia's ashes. Perhaps the most charming appearances in the whole play are French President Jacques Chirac (Paul Floding), and Theatre Vertigo alum Tom Moorman, playing himself.

Faust. Us. proves that even in this age of war, terror, and strife, the heart remains the darkest place in the universe. Bring a date! TOUSSAINT PERRAULT