The staging is impeccable, the acting is first-rate, the script is amusing and, to the extent you can say this about a play which has Hitler, Freud, Lucifer and Pope Francis talking to each other, historically accurate. Then why did I walk out of Martin Luther on Trial so dissatisfied? In the end, it may be for the same reason Gertrude Stein didn’t like Oakland: there’s no there there.
Which is not to say that the play is set nowhere. It is set in a court of general — universal — jurisdiction, where a huge tower of books (these are all biographies of Luther) reaches to the ceiling, and beyond. The antagonists are gathered — for the prosecution, Lucifer (Paul Schoeffler), and for the defense, Luther’s wife Katie Von Bora (Kersti Bryan). As Schoeffler plays him, Lucifer is a sneer with legs; the Prince of Lawyers as well as the Prince of Liars. Katie initially appears to be prey without a prayer’s chance, but as the play progresses we see that she is made of sterner stuff.
The defendant, of course, is Martin Luther (Fletcher McTaggart), the flawed, brilliant, tormented monk who ushered in the Protestant Revolution in 1518 by printing and distributing his 95 theses. These theses were principally aimed at the Catholic Church’s practice of selling indulgences (i.e., early release from purgatory into heaven) in order to raise money to build St. Peter’s basilica. This was particularly galling to Luther since the Pope, the young Medici prince Leo X, was one of the richest people in the world and probably could have built the thing itself.
Given the initiating incident, it seems somewhat ironic that St. Peter himself (John Michalski) is the presiding justice, but these sorts of coincidences happen all the time in the law. (Luther himself was a law school dropout). Luther argued that God alone had the power to forgive sins and so the Church’s pay-for-forgiveness scheme was illegitimate; by logical extension, if God alone had the power to forgive sins, the Church had no such power; and that we ourselves could not win grace through good works, but only through faith. The play, however, did not spend much time on these extended tenants of Lutheran doctrine.
Instead, Luther is charged with the “unforgiveable sin” — which is, as Dr. Martin Luther King (Leopold Lowe) explains, “blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.” But what is that? Playwrights Chris Cragin-Day & Max McLean are a little muddy. Adolf Hitler (Mark Boyett), Lucifer’s leadoff witness, correctly claims that Luther’s translation of Scriptures into the German vernacular gave Germany a common language and unified culture, but that can hardly be the unforgiveable sin.
The play makes much of Luther’s anti-Semitism, a trait he shared with many other 16th-century Christian leaders, and also many Christian leaders of the 17th, 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. Luther was a white-hot rhetorician (“You are a poet,” the Jewish leader Josel [Boyett] says to Luther, implying that he was not entirely logical) and a disappointed suitor (he sought to convert Jews to Christianity en masse; his encounter with Josel in the first Act summarizes his degree of success). His late-in-life thesis On the Jews and their Lies was particularly lurid, although his denunciation of Jews was not more pronounced than his denunciation of Papists and others with whom he disagreed. Katie, like any good defense lawyer, seeks to minimize the impact of Luther’s venomous screeds; Cragin-Day and McLean, who depict Luther mostly in retrospect, seem to attribute his worst accusations to the pain he suffered from kidney stones and other ailments late in life. (This is also the view of the scholar Mark U. Edwards).
Martin Luther on Trial
closes May 22, 2016
Details and tickets
But in the end anti-Semitism is not the unforgiveable sin (probably good news for Christians everywhere), and the search goes on. We watch the examination and cross-examination of Sigmund Freud (Boyett) and Dr. King. We learn of Luther’s tormented relationship with his perfectionist father; we see him struggle with Paul’s concept of justice in his epistle to the Romans while Paul (Boyett) stands by, tearing his hair out; we watch his endless confessions (“I murdered Christ,” he explains to his confessor [Lowe]). We watch him pledge his love to Katie, a former nun whom he had smuggled out of a convent in a herring barrel; we see him stand before the Emperor (Lowe) at the Diet of Worms, where he refused to recant and was excommunicated and made an outlaw for it.
All of this is tremendously dramatic stuff, and Martin Luther on Trial does not stint. I buy Kelly James Tighe’s magnificent set as a courtroom somewhere in Limbo; Nicole Wee’s costumes are similarly convincing, and Quentin Chiappetta’s sound design is out of this world, no pun intended. McTaggert gives us a Luther who is simultaneously in agony and in ecstasy; the pain he shows in trying to cast off his own sins is not different than the pain he shows later, passing a kidney stone.
Schoeffler’s glossy Lucifer seems invulnerable at play’s beginning, which makes his breakdown at play’s end all the more effective. Bryan’s Katie is dignified and compassionate in the face of unspeakable horror, as the real Von Bora was, and thus a hero. Michalski carries off a difficult balancing act (his Judge Peter must be fair, like a real judge, but must also be Peter, crusader against sin and evil) with aplomb. Lowe and Boyett are similarly satisfactory, although I was a little distracted by the light Italian accent Boyett gave Pope Francis.
The writing is good, too. Saint and sinner alike have easy, comfortable relationships with each other which owe more to contemporary culture than to Martin Luther, but it does help us invest ourselves in the characters. When Lucifer rails against Martin Luther as the sworn enemy of the Church, Pope Francis coolly replies, “No, that would be you,” the audience in the show I attended broke into applause.
Still, it is not an original thing to get an audience to be against the Devil. The harder thing is to get the audience to understand what is at stake for Luther in the play, and, by so understanding, also understand Luther himself. When we finally learn what the unforgiveable sin is, it so transparently confabulates offenses against God with offenses against man that the air immediately leaves the emotional balloon.
So for Martin Luther on Trial, here is my verdict: had this been a criminal trial, no Grand Jury would have returned a True Bill. Had this been a civil trial, the court would have dismissed the case for failure to state a claim.
Martin Luther on Trial by Chris Cragin-Day & Max McLean . Directed by Michael Parva . Featuring Paul Schoeffler, Kersti Bryan, John Michalski, Mark Boyett, Fletcher McTaggart and Leopold Lowe . Set design by Kelly James Tighe . Costume design by Nicole Wee . Lighting design by Geoffrey D. Fishburn . Original music and sound design by Qentin Chiappetta . Production stage manager Lloyd Davis, Jr . Produced by the Fellowship of Performing Arts . Reviewed by Tim Treanor.