You may have heard the name Faust; you may have even boldly tossed it around yourself at a party, knowing it has something to do with literature or philosophy, and that if you say something is “Faustian,” you’re likely to get some nods from other people who don’t really know what it means. We’re here to save you. No longer do you have to wonder. If you skimped on your college reading — and really, who didn’t? — you better be ready, because the David Herskovits-helmed Spoleto opera is not going to give you the whole story. Rather, Faustus, the Last Night, written by French composer Pascal Dusapin, plunges you into the last stages of the action involved in the classic tale, going in medias res into whole new territory.

The legend of Dr. Faust dates back to 1587, when the first published version appeared — Historia von Dr. Johann Fausten by Johann Spiess. Several versions followed throughout the years in books and plays. Goéthe’s drama Faust, probably the most familiar, was published in two parts, in 1808 and 1832.

Christopher Marlowe’s 1594 play The Tragical History of Dr. Faustus was the springboard for Dusapin’s libretto. Faust operas from at least five other composers exist, so one can see the challenge in creating yet another work about the legendary tale of man’s struggle with the devil.

The short version: Dr. Faustus, a man obsessed with learning, makes a deal with Satan, selling his soul in exchange for the service of Mephistopheles, a tricky devil. Angels warn Faustus, but he ignores them. Faustus hopes to gain knowledge of the heavens and creation from him, but gains no ground in that area. His deal made in the hopes of getting endless knowledge leaves him unsatisfied. When his time is up, he spends his last night on earth lamenting his choice.

In different versions of the tale, Faustus dies and goes to hell, or Faustus dies and goes to heaven. In Dusapin’s version, it’s not so clear-cut. Dusapin opens his opera on, as the title states, Faustus’ last night on earth. He examines Faustus in his final state of mind, delirious with the obsession of ultimate knowledge and with the frightened awareness of what is in store for his soul. In the room is Mephistopheles, a blind angel, and the characters Sly and Togod. Dusapin acknowledges the influences of Shakespeare (especially in the drunken Sly), Beckett (noticeably in the character Togod — mull that one over), Melville, Blake, Dante, and even Al Capone in shaping his opera.

So how does a director take these odd remnants of a long-standing legend, this flotsam and jetsam of creative pieces of work put to music, and stage it?

“I guess you could say I don’t know how to direct,” says Herskovits, artistic director of Target Margin Theater in New York and Spoleto veteran (with 1998’s Mamba’s Daughters). He explains that he doesn’t work with a “concept,” as such, as directors normally do, because he finds them limiting. “I gravitate toward material that I don’t know how to do. That’s one thing that excites me about this opera,” he says.

Before you lose your confidence in what this man can pull off, know that he just spent several years on a six-hour production of Goëthe’s Faust. He blazes through a list of all the things he takes into consideration when staging a production, then says, “And all of these things are happening at once. Sometimes we make these all line up at once. But I’m more interested in having them line up and then diverge. (He gestures with his hands here.) So that the texture of the piece is the experience.”

Further explaining his disdain for concepts, he says, “Any worthwhile document of the creative imagination has within it its own mystery and contradiction in terms of tone and complexity. Concepts are easy to explain and used to explain other things. Concepts take the mystery and complexity and kill it. And that’s not what I go to theatre for.”

In his approach to Faustus, he says, “I’m not trying to answer it as if it were a puzzle to be solved. I’m trying to manifest complexity in a way that’s exciting, as if you were reading it. Seeing the play should be as interesting as reading it. Very often it’s not. That’s sad.”

Herskovits hopes to acknowledge the several cultural references without singling them out, creating a unified piece. “I want to investigate that integrity and not float like a magpie from one glittering object to the other,” he explains.

“Where the story goes is entirely different. It begins with Marlowe, but really takes place in the landscape of Beckett,” he says. He likes that this production exists in a world beyond hell or beyond heaven. “Does the very stark moral calculus of the original Faust even apply? And the answer is ‘no, it does not,’ and that produces a great deal of anxiety,” he admits.

Yet he promises, “it’s actually very irreverent.” There’s “a balance of devastation … and dancing in devastation.” — Jennifer Corley

Faustus, the Last Night • Spoleto Festival USA • $25-$100 • (1 hour, 30 min.) • May 27, 29, June 2 at 8 p.m. • Sottile Theatre, 44 George St. • 579-3100