'Wittenberg' combines contemporary flavor with formality of years gone by

Posted: Friday, January 16, 2009

"Wittenberg" is a college town in Germany, enjoying its intellectual heyday in the early 1500s, also the setting of this brainy, bawdy play about the education of Hamlet, future King of Denmark.

Courtesy Of Flordelino Lagundino
Courtesy Of Flordelino Lagundino

This was a fascinating time during human history, peppered by many contemporaneous luminaries such as Leonardo daVinci, William Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe, Martin Luther, John Calvin, Galileo Galilei, St. Augustine, Ferdinand Magellan, Dante Alighieri, Nicolaus Copernicus, Attila the Hun and numerous other writers and explorers who were pushing out the boundaries of not only the physical world, but of knowledge itself.

Not for the devout, the major conceipt in this show is an exploration of the influences which led the fictitious Hamlet to ask his famous question, "To be, or not to be?" Hamlet, played with charm and vigor by a seemingly ageless Brandon Demery, is a senior in college and working not only on his dissertation but also his tennis game. He is having trouble with both.

Hamlet's principal teachers are attempting to influence him in almost opposite directions. One is the fiery and bombastic Martin Luther. The other is the notorious but probably fictitious character of "John" Faustus, immortalized by Dante, Marlowe, Goethe and others. The character of Faustus represents the devil's advocate. Faust famously makes a pact with the devil which gains him access to infinite knowledge, until such time as he becomes a man of faith, and then he must agree to go to hell, more or less.

This over-educated, brilliant, restless seeker of the full experience of life is marvelously captured by local director and screenwriter Dave Hunsaker, who seems to greatly enjoy playing this role, which requires not only rapid-fire high-brow wise-cracking but also singing and strumming of the electric lute.

There is a hilarious scene in which Dr. Luther is stage left, sermonizing with conviction about the appearance of God in all things, while center stage Faustus (Hunsaker), similarly ecstatic, writhes and groans under a large satin sheet with his lover, The Eternal Feminine, played with solemnity and flirtatious grace by Asha Falcon. As you might have noticed from the list of important men alive during these times, not much was written about women during this first century of printed press. The playwright evidently has strong feelings about this egregoious inequity and has created an imaginative role to cover the gap. Ms. Falcon (playing the many facets of The Eternal Feminine) dons a variety of wigs and nearly-treacherous footwear to embody not only the high prostitute (Faustus' paramour) but also a serving wench, a messenger from Denmark's royal court, the bitter ghost of Hamlet's mother, and the Virgin Mary herself.

Although the show is a comedy, with many jokes both arcane and slapstick, I especially enjoyed it because of the succinct yet deep and multi-dimensional examination of several important topics. A simple, but authentically medieval-looking set (Art Rotch) featuring the famous church doors upon which Martin Luther's 95 protestations were nailed, promotes historical inquiry; how exciting to be alive during such huge revolutionary changes such as reconceptualizing the earth as a mere planet, and not the center of the universe!

The play also explores the nature of Faith, and how even the pious struggle with this uncertainty. Roblin Gray Davis is absolutely tops in his role as the ebulient priest - sincere, dogmatic and articulate with his marvelous lines. He reveals his epiphanies not only on the pulpit but also on the commode.

Martin Luther is the perfect foil to the irreverent Faustus, with his cache of remedies for the body and psyche, but none for the soul. Their convivial sparring is a highlight of the script. Faustus opines that theologians read the Bible for the answers, but philosophers, such as himself, read it for the questions.

"Free your soul, John," cries the anguished Martin Luther.

"Free your mind, Martin," laughs Faustus.

A few paragraphs cannot adequately capture the experience of an evening at the theatre, but this review would not be complete without mention of the brilliant peripherals. Both the costumes (Meaghan Willis) and the sound design (Rory Stitt) were a study in simple, but highly effective, blending of raucous contemporary flavor (jeans, heavy metal) and the glorious formality of years gone by (laced leather doublets, Kyrie Eleison). Enjoy!

• Emily Kane can be reached at DoctorEm@aol.com.

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