“It just all sort of fell in place. The perfect storm.”
Fletcher McTaggart was telling me how he landed the title role in Martin Luther on Trial. Fellowship for Performing Arts (FPA), the New York City-based company presenting this world premiere, returns to Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Lansburgh Theatre with the play from May 12 through May 22. DC audiences have previously seen FPA productions of The Screwtape Letters and C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce on the Lansburgh stage.
“What happened was, it was an audition that my agent set-up. I work for Local One also; stage-hand work. Local One is the Broadway union. I do carpentry and electrics,” McTaggart explained with a chuckle. “I had the audition set-up and I was working the night before and I hurt myself and had to miss the first audition. And I was so pulled toward this material that I got in touch with the casting agent myself and asked if they could just bring me in personally for the call-back. And they brought me in, which is a rarity.”
I asked McTaggart if he wouldn’t mind telling me what Broadway production he was working on when he got hurt. “Local One is expanding their work and is now doing events. I was actually in Times Square, working on the opening of Mission Impossible — what are they on now, Six? Seven? Eight hundred? And I got hit in the face. In fact, when I went in, I had this huge scab over my face, above my eye. I looked like hell. But, yeah —I’ve been doing this for 36 years now. The moment you walk in the door and it falls into place, you just know it. And that’s what happened that day.”
The new play has been written by Chris Cragin-Day and Max McLean. McLean is the Founder and Artistic Director of FPA, and he has just finished a run as the title character in C.S. Lewis Onstage: The Most Reluctant Convert, which he also adapted, and which preceded Martin Luther on Trial during this latest FPA residency at the Lansburgh.
“Max is a very intelligent man and has a lot of foresight, in that he realized that, in 2017, there will probably be some interest in seeing a play about Martin Luther. So he started this ahead of time.” 2017 will be the 500th anniversary of Luther’s nailing of his 95 theses to the door of the Wittenburg Church, the act that triggered the Reformation. “Since next year is the anniversary, it’s going to have a lot of interest, especially since Pope Francis is now talking about reformation for the church and how it affects Catholicism.”
I asked McTaggart to whom the play might appeal. “This is my first time working for this company and I didn’t know what to expect, because it’s a fellowship. It does have a Christian base, a Christian theme throughout a lot of the plays. We did a workshop performance here in town [New York City] at the Pearl and we got some Lutherans, we got some Christians, people interested in Martin Luther, and also people who are just interested in the art form itself. I would say that they’re shooting for a Christian base, but it’s also an entertaining piece just standing by itself. So, I have friends that are not very Christian or religious who came and saw it and actually loved it. It’s been a wide range of audience members that we’ve had.”
Historical plays tend to either place their protagonist on a pedestal (A Man for All Seasons) or to explore his or her conflicts and doubts. John Osborne’s 1961 play Luther falls into the latter category. In which category would McTaggart (who told me that he had just finished reading the Osborne play) place Martin Luther on Trial?
“I think one of the things I like that Chris and Max, who are the writers, do is that he is conflicted, but you do see that moment when he finds what grace means, what God’s justice truly is. And he’s very human. That’s what I like about it, and what I enjoy about this. You do see the human issues he went through, being caught in a reformation, in a revolution, basically, and it gets away from him, in fact. So we don’t see the statue — Martin Luther the perfect man. We see his faults. They take a lot of looks, a lot of big looks in there, trying to tackle the big questions of what his faults were, and also what his triumphs were. So it’s a very human and conflicted Martin, trying to find his way and his place in this reformation that he starts.”
The conceit of the post-mortem trial allows the script to include historical figures who were not contemporaries of Luther. (In this, it reminds one of The Last Days of Judas Iscariot by Stephen Adly Guirgis, which local audiences will remember from Forum Theatre’s recent hit revival.) What is the purpose of that device?
“It’s unique in that you hear the title and you think that it’s all about the Diet of Worms that he went through, but it essentially takes place after he’s passed away, in the underworld, and the Devil has come back to put Martin Luther on trial, because it’s his belief that Martin Luther broke the unforgivable sin.
“This will be my own little take on it, but you get to see, by having Martin Luther King and Hitler (which, the first time I read it, just blew my mind that we have Hitler come on-stage as a witness) and Sigmund Freud and Pope Francis, you’re able to see how much Martin Luther affected different people throughout history and also you see different sides of him: with Sigmund Freud, you get the psycho-analytical point-of-view of what he thought was going on with Martin; you get how Martin Luther affected Martin Luther King, because Martin Luther King’s father went to Germany and came back and changed both their names; you also see the negative effect of how Martin Luther affected Hitler, possibly, which is a very huge question that goes back and forth between the Catholics and the Protestants.
“So the device, I think, allows you to get a more in-depth look at Martin’s psyche and also his place in history. It actually helps as an actor for me to have that because, the way the scenes are broken up, it’s almost like flashbacks.”
Martin Luther on Trial
May 12 – 22, 2016
Details and tickets
McTaggart himself has learned a lot about the subject since landing the role. “When I went to school, I learned just a hair of who Martin Luther was — just that he nailed some stuff on a door and thus began the Reformation, and that’s all I remembered. Since I’ve been playing this part, it’s been astounding to realize the change that he made. He completely altered Catholicism and set in motion the fall of nations.”
McTaggart spoke about Luther as a somewhat reluctant revolutionary. “At first, he actually tried to approach the church and have them see the error of their ways: not translating the Bible from Hebrew correctly, that they had made a mistake in that. It was the age of humanism, going from God being the center of all things to man being the center of all things, and Martin was basically the bridge for that, and has affected the world globally, how we look at ourselves. So whether you are a Christian or not, his battle with himself, and then his challenge to the Church, changed everything globally.”
McTaggart discussed the reforms that Luther advocated, “that Priests should be allowed to marry, which was a dramatic change; that the Eucharist should be received by everyone; that God’s justice is grace and not all punishment; and that everybody should be able to read the Bible themselves. This changed how everyone approached learning and spirituality and affected, eventually, governments — peasants revolting against nobles and bringing forward democracy. So his effect on the world has been dramatic, and when I first started doing this — the more research I do, the more I’m impressed with how much his life changed the lives of everyone today.”
I asked McTaggart if the script of this new play was undergoing a lot of changes. “I do not count on it being set at all. It’s in constant flux. In fact, before you called, I was pacing back and forth and working on lines. I think it’s such a gigantic topic that it’s hard to navigate the story you want to tell about Martin.”
Since the subject is rather weighty, I wondered whether it’s a heavy evening. “There is a lot of humor, actually. I’m always tickled when I see a movie or a play that has the Devil in it, and how different writers approach that archetype. It comes with a lot of baggage, and Paul [Schoeffler, the actor playing the Devil] is doing a fantastic job with that. And the character of Katie, who is Martin Luther’s wife, is given the task to defend him, and she is a very interesting, strong woman, so the Devil and Katie go back and forth, and there’s Saint Peter looking over the trial, so there is a lot of humor in it. I think it helps, because it can get pretty heavy, the topics they talk about.”
McTaggart bemoaned, though, that “there’s not much humor for Martin Luther, unfortunately. I have a couple that I’ve been able to let land, but they use a lot of flashbacks to his life, and, when you come to those scenes, the most dramatic points of his life — when I first read the script and started working on it, I said to my wife, this might actually drive me a little nutty, because it is like one gigantic life experience after another, with these scenes of discovering grace and going up against the church. Yeah,” he chuckled, “playing a revolutionary figure has been challenging. And finding the balance between what’s going on in the court and what’s going on in the scene; making sure it’s not too big and not too small — it’s a delightful dance and I really do enjoy this play. Otherwise, I would have lost my mind and walked away.” (Another chuckle.)
McTaggart (GW’s Academy of Classical Acting, class of 2002) said of his return to town, “I’m so excited. I can’t wait. I have a sister who lives near George Mason and I go down there quite a bit. I had contemplated living in DC, after I’d gone to school, and staying there a while, so I’m looking forward to going back. I always marveled at living in the most powerful place on the planet. It always just sort of spun my head around. I’m very familiar with the scene in DC. There’s a beautiful theatre scene. I’m a classical actor by trade and Washington, DC has a deep respect for Shakespeare and also for classical theatre and for theatre itself. It’s amazing.”
It’s been a while since McTaggart was local. “It was the second class. I was still one of their guinea pigs. It was an amazing experience. I got to work with all the actors over at the Shakespeare Theatre, and with Mr. Michael Kahn himself, who was always a hero of mine. He’s a force of nature. I adore Michael. He’s one of the biggest influences of my life. He’s one of the best teachers I’ve ever had. Michael had a hand in helping me to get an audition with The Acting Company, which put my life on a whole different path. I owe him a lot. And Ed Gero and Floyd King are dear to my heart and have provided me with guidance since I was there. Ed is a dear friend and a mentor of mine ever since I went to school. I adore him.”
Returning to town has been a bit of a dream deferred. “I’ve turned the Shakespeare Theatre down three times, offers to come down and work there, because things in New York were already set in motion. One was a movie [The Heat, directed by Paul Feig] one was a Broadway show [the musical Leap of Faith], so I’ve stayed in town, but I’ve been wanting to get on that stage ever since I graduated, so I’m so excited to be there.”
Will Martin Luther on Trial have a life after the Lansburgh? “There’s talk — there’s nothing official yet — that we’re going to go to Chicago and then bring it back to DC. And then the hope is that they can take it all over the country in 2017. So I’ve signed onto a long commitment of playing Martin Luther.”