Story: What if Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, while a student at Wittenberg University in 1517, had met Rev. Martin Luther, a theology professor on campus? And what if the indecisive Dane, a senior but still without a proclaimed major, had studied philosophy under Dr. John (not Johann?) Faustus, the fabled academic who sold his soul to Satan in exchange for many years of worldly pleasures?
Seems that Luther and Faustus are buds of sorts, even though the atheistic philosophy professor is polar opposite of the pious Luther. While quaffing an alcoholic beverage or three (wine, beer, whatever), the two debate the wages of sin as well as the penchant of a certain Dominican in the Roman Catholic Church to sell plenary indulgences to the faithful, absolving them of sins.
This outrage infuriates Luther even more than Faustus’ incessant needling. Luther is wound up tighter than a new pair of shoes made by a near-sighted cobbler and his pal Faustus encourages him to loosen up and live a little. After all, that works quite well for Faustus, who fancies many a lady, including the imperious Helen, a sexy courtesan whose beauty and carnal desires have launched a thousand...ships.
Excited to learn from Hamlet that a professor named Copernicus is proposing that the Earth revolves around the sun, in contradiction to the Church’s teaching, Faustus uses that information to further goad Luther into writing down what really irritates the monk about Mother Church. Appealing to Luther’s ego and his sense of fairness, Faustus convinces the theology teacher to jot down his ideas, or ‘theses,’ about what’s wrong with modern religion.
Turns out it’s 95 Theses in all, and Luther feels better after putting his Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences on paper. After all, no one will see what he thinks except his trusted student Hamlet and maybe his needling nemesis Faustus. What’s to worry?
Highlights: Playwright David Davalos makes a whimsical journey to 16th century Germany to wonder about the possibilities when three (four, counting the Helen of Troy trope) famous names congregate in the same place at the same time to ruminate about themselves, the universe and the advantages of ego over id. It’s a most enjoyable trek in the lively production at Upstream Theater helmed by artistic director Philip Boehm.
Other Info: Coincidentally, local stages presently are featuring two clever takes on works of William Shakespeare, with Wittenberg at Upstream Theater being joined by District Merchants (a paean to The Merchant of Venice) at New Jewish Theatre. Each is fascinating and very clever in its own right.
Wittenberg features a charming scenic design conceived by Michael Heil, with an old-style cartography of the title city on the back wall and a rug covered with Renaissance art on the floor in Faustus’ office. Prop designer Rachel Tibbetts fills the Faustus study with an appealing array of knicknacks, from a skull pondered by the puzzled Hamlet to a desk littered with bottles and potions foisted by the wannabe physician and even a facsimile of the 95 Theses themselves.
It’s all beautifully bathed in the soft luminescence of Steve Carmichael’s lighting design. Boehm provides the silly sound design, with riffs on tunes made famous by Robert Palmer, Doris Day and others performed on a lute of sorts by Steve Isom, kind of, as Faustus. It’s recommended that the learned doctor not quit his day job.
Laura Hanson’s costumes dress the players in appealing outfits which match their personas, from the flamboyant attire favored by Faustus to the drab drudgery of Luther’s tunics to the frivolous wardrobe of a busty barmaid and the seductive red gown of Helen and the black tennis shoes of college athlete Hamlet.
The program for Wittenberg offers tasty food for thought from director Boehm, managing director Peter Mayer and Wittenberg quotes from Luther, Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe’s The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus. There’s also a page of musings by the likes of Aristotle, Freud, Copernicus, St. Augustine, Nietzsche and others.
All of this is academic without good performances. Fortunately, director Boehm has assembled a savvy cast who fully inherit their characters to the benefit of the production and its audiences.
Casey Boland succeeds in being confused, indecisive and easily manipulated as the uncertain Danish prince, while Caitlin Mickey provides a bevy of noteworthy turns as “The Eternal Feminine,” including Helen of Troy, the Virgin Mary and Gretchen the fun-loving beer wench.
The “tragical, comical, historical play”’s primary characters, Faustus and Luther, are played with finely measured accomplishment by Steve Isom and Alan Knoll, respectively. Isom’s free-wheeling immersion as Faustus into both intellectual and hedonistic pursuits is contrasted cunningly by Knoll’s precise portrayal of a frustrated, by-the-book Luther who’s about to change the world without realizing it and usher in the Protestant Reformation.
Wittenberg stylishly sets the table for an evening of imaginative comedy with the wry and witty musings of playwright Davalos, Boehm’s meticulous direction and the ensemble’s astute interpretations of famous people and characters who may have been in the same place at the same time, but weren’t. It’s fun anyway.
Group: Upstream Theater
Venue: Kranzberg Arts Center, 501 North Grand at Olive
Dates: January 31, February 3, 7, 8, 9, 10
Tickets: $25-$35; contact email@example.com or 669-6382
Rating: A 4.5 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photos courtesy of Peter Wochniak