David Davalos’ Wittenberg (2008) wraps itself in an amusing conceit. Doctor Faustus and Martin Luther, two professors at the titular German university, are engaged in a battle of ideas: Faustus’ farsighted Enlightenment rationalism (of a sort) versus the Reformation theology with which Luther is synonymous. Their friendly rivalry takes a more competitive turn when Prince Hamlet of Denmark—yes, he of Shakespearean renown—returns for the fall semester after a summer spent studying with Nicolaus Copernicus. The astronomer’s theory of a heliocentric universe has unsettled Hamlet much as it will come to unsettle the rest of the world, and the prince’s emotional and psychological vulnerability creates a fallow metaphysical space in which Faustus and Luther attempt to make either reason or religion, respectively, take root.
With Luther, Faustus and Hamlet now pressed into close quarters under this premise, Davalos has quite literally set the stage for a two-hour intellectual exercise in which Faustus revels in the notion that everything is open to question, Luther stubbornly maintains that scripture holds the definitive answers, and an undecided, impressionable Hamlet is caught twixt and tween. For humor, the playwright imparts Hamlet with spot-on florid Elizabethan speech, shovels on knowing but superficial references to philosophers (Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Sartre, Agrippa) and pop culture (2001, Timothy Leary, St. Pauli beer, open mic poetry) by the rapid dozen, and weaves in prescient foreshadowings of the characters’ own fates along with nods to modern academic mores (“Publish or perish!” Faustus urges Luther, who responds dryly: “Publish and perish!”). This dense, relentless barrage of name-dropping and cultural in-jokes is entertaining up to the point it becomes a substitute for real philosophical meat by simply flattering the self-image of its supposedly highbrow audience.
Along those same lines, a certain sympathy with Faustus is assumed (ironically, given that his emphatic motto is, “Question everything!”), which means that there’s never a moment when he and his worldview find a worthy debate opponent in Luther. Wittenberg therefore isn’t really an even-handed ensemble piece; it’s the doctor’s play, and Davalos accordingly stacks the deck in his favor. He even swipes Luther’s greatest achievement, The Ninety-Five Theses, and hands it over to Faustus. All in the name of comedy, you might say, but it’s nevertheless indicative of how lightweight this bout between faith and doubt actually is. Faustus doesn’t exactly emerge as the unsullied victor—after all, he needs to be left with an impetus for his ill-fated rendezvous with Mephistopheles—but there is a kind of vindication even in his disappointment.
In the current production of Wittenberg at Stage Left, the set by Rebecca McNeill, Amanda Bohn and Jeremy Rogers is one of the best looking that the theater has ever assembled. Two taunting grotesques (presumably created by director Patrick Treadway, a skilled puppet designer) flank an arched central “stone” doorway. On the left side of the stage, slightly elevated, sits Faustus’ desk in front of a window. There are shelves full of myriad vials, a memento mori, plenty of books. On the right side, also elevated, is Luther’s spartan office, with a large cross in place of the window. The temporary stage then extends toward the audience to create two spaces at different heights: one for indoor scenes, one for outdoor scenes. Lights are cleverly integrated into the underside of the front. The production also relies on recorded sound to augment the set; Jesse McNeece has done a great job of looping ambient noise and simulating the tennis match between Hamlet and an unseen Laertes (voiced by Steven Anderson). Cat Hubin’s costuming is excellent too.
For the actors, opening night was an uneasy muddle of shaky lines, missed cues, uneven pace and segregated performances. Normally slips like these can be attributed to nervous jitters and are barely worth mentioning, but this cast still seemed to be in the dress rehearsal stages. Thomas Heppler is a likable and impassioned Doctor Faustus, though it’s hard not to see a palimpsest of many of his previous characters (Scrooge, Dr. Martin Dysart) in this one. As Luther, Jeremy Lindholm follows his inaudibly soft whisper-like moments with ANIMATED AND BOOMING surges. It’s difficult to tell if this comes down to a misguided conscious choice, acoustic dead spots in the set, or something else altogether. Cameron Price is all but unintelligible as Hamlet; his delivery is a listless, mushy monotone. Wittenberg has him offstage more often than on, but when he is there, he barely seems to be present. Collette Hagen, who covers several female roles (among them Mary and a prostitute) as The Eternal Feminine, is far more consistent and watchable.
Wittenberg runs until March 6, 2016 at Stage Left Theater. Tickets are $10.
1. For a play that prides itself on its intellectual underpinnings, I found it slightly jarring to hear “Wittenberg” repeatedly pronounced with the approximant <w> sound instead of the fricative <v>. Apparently this anglicized pronunciation is perfectly acceptable, so what do I know? ↩