You needn’t be a history buff to be swept up by the fun and antics of Wittenberg. Sure, the main characters’ names and issues will sound familiar from cramming for history class, but they’re “fictional” spoofs inspired by the actual—Martin Luther, Dr. Faustus, Hamlet—and this Rep Stage production pulls the characters out of stuffy academics and delivers them straight into laugh land.
Playwright David Davalos has a way with words and equally sizeable sparkling humor. Most important is his love and appreciation for the philosophical underpinnings of great men and minds that helped direct the course of Western culture and thus, shaped history. Sometimes played for more laughs than seems appropriate in the company of these great characters and their masterworks, Wittenberg gently introduces and covers some of the most perplexing ideas of Western man. The characters in Wittenberg represent the various issues of their assigned fates– the legendary Faustus is likely based on an alchemist/ magician– but with a refreshing sometimes hysterical modern sensibility, thus infusing the ideas and concepts with life and madcap fun.
The play opens with the sounds of the inevitable heavy pounding of sheets of paper on wooden gates in a perfect foreshadowing of the 95 Theses that revolutionized church doctrine. Hamlet is a wayward student of both Dr. Faustus and Martin Luther at Wittenberg U (who apparently actually taught at this venerable institution), and his presentation as a melancholy young Dane and fellow seeker of enlightenment is priceless. Lambasted as an “undecided major,” he attends lectures of both of these renowned professors, and in a clever directorial move (totally solid Tony Tsendeas) comes in late and sits in the first row, this including all of the theater as part of the lecture hall. The professors describe their subjects and causes with passionate righteousness (Luther) and philosophical earnestness about free choice (Faustus).
Davalos uses all kinds of lighthearted “teachable moments” throughout to playfully drop conceptual nuggets into the dialogue. He provides a delightful frame of reference when Luther and Faustus have a beer induced philosophical brawl at a favorite pub, jabbing and poking at each other with their respective ideological thrusts. They leave no concept behind, especially when downing double mugs of brew. Faustus advocates loudly on the power of reason to Luther’s passionate sermons on unshakable faith; save your soul versus free your mind; “Repent!” Luther yells out, only for Faustus to shout back “Relax.”
Without sinking into pedagogy purgatory, Davalos embeds the philosophical bantering with enough arguments to fill a composition notebook. The material feels fresh and light because he doesn’t smite you with his rod of knowledge. Either you get it or you can go along for the comic ride. For example, in one funny session with Hamlet, Faustus introduces “To believe or not to believe” which later transforms into the well known “To be or not to be” line, with a quizzical Hamlet asking—“That is the question?” In Wittenberg, modern and classical references collide in the name of truth, enlightenment and self awareness, with fun-filled goofy parodies thrown into the mix. Along with some titillating sexual passages, in one case, juxtaposed with scripture. That one, brothers and sisters, you have to see it to believe it yourself. It is inflammatory, disrespectful, and insanely funny. I believe, oh yes, I believe.
Seth Reichgott is a fun-loving, ready to romp and rumble Faustus. He has a wonderful physical delivery, with a charming rakish appeal. Whether tending to his medicinal arsenal, or suggesting outlandish options to Hamlet and others to reason out for themselves, or pining for his captivating though ill-reputed lover, ( Emily Clare Zempel in assorted female roles), Reichgott brings heart to his character’s intentions and stays steadfast on the journey. Michael Stebbins does a good turn as Martin Luther by maintaining a blustering visage and perpetual scowl that will judge us all to hell in a sin-filled minute. Stebbins becomes almost translucent when portraying Luther’s newly found awareness about personal, emotionally based salvation that changed modern theology forever. His moment of spiritual discovery and awareness about having a personal relationship with God without having to pay for “indulgences” or payment to help in forgiveness of sin, even preemptively, is moving and effective. Michael Feldsher portrays the melancholy Dane Hamlet with just the right adorable look and appeal, but at times seems a bit limited in getting across the fractured, contemplative aspects needed to provide some depth of character for shading and dimension. He more than compensates in the second Act with his emotional rollercoaster ride of self awareness and discovery, along with his massive swings and perfect tumbles in a tennis match with a fellow philosopher. The script doesn’t offer much to explain his adversary, but giving him a name that sounds suspiciously like the tennis pro Jorgenson send a funny zing catapulting through time. Also, the staging with real racket, great sound design by Chas Marsh and delightfully scrumptious old-fashioned tennis attire (costumes by Norah Worthington) make the bit more than enjoyable.
The town of Wittenberg, Germany has entertained a meeting of some of the greatest minds in Western culture. This production by Rep Stage covers some of the well worn arguments about truth and philosophical dimensions of human kind that are as important now as in the age before Copernicus, when a “view from the heavens” could occur only with some serious herbal intervention.
While we know that sea monsters don’t lurk in the oceans and that the earth is not (physically) the center of the universe, we’re still figuring out the quintessential powers of truth, reason, and faith and their roles in our own lives and hearts. Wittenberg brings these concepts front and center with characters inspired by lives that hung in the balance between their own heaven and hell, when burning stakes, drownings, and torture devices were routinely used to test the faithful. Thankfully, we now have less drastic opportunities to express and explore various philosophical leanings and with Rep’s production on hand, maybe get a little “divine inspiration” between laughs.
For more fun getting into the free-wheeling mind of David Davalos, catch a free reading of his “Daedalus” in mid- September, an “imaginative telling of the Renaissance world” with Leonardo da Vinci. You can never get too much of a good thing.
Written by David Davalos
Directed by Tony Tsendeas
Produced by Rep Stage
Reviewed by Debbie Minter Jackson
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