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A CurtainUp Review
Martin Luther on Trial

Luther gave God the finger. — Lucifer
He didn't — Katie
And that's really what the unforgivable sin is, isn't it" Telling the Holy spirit to go piss off. Telling God, "I don't need you. I don't need your love. I don't need your salvation, so you can shove it up your ass." — Lucifer
Fletcher McTaggart as Martin Luther (Joan Marcus)
Purgatory, or that illusive holding zone that exists between heaven and hell seems to be growing as a popular setting these days for dramatic pretentions. Following up on the recent musical Ride the Cyclone in which a group of teenagers await their fate there following a fatal accident, we are once again captivated by those made captive in this kind of limbo in the engrossing and entertaining play by Chris Cragin-Day and Max McLean. At stake and to be determined by a trial is the ultimate and presumably eternal fate of 16th century Christian reformer/idealist Martin Luther.

The catch is that the Devil nee Lucifer, as characterized with the chill of imposed superiority by a terrific Paul Schoeffler, is the chief prosecutor in a courtroom. In the evocative setting designed by Kelly James Tighe are three raised platforms and ecclesiastical columns, a single tall column of books that reaches to the rafters and an altar with a centered smoking doorway to you-know-where.

The trial is presided over by designated arbitrator and sometimes referee St. Peter, as played by a staunch if also occasionally stymied John Michalski. Serving for the defense is Luther's earnestly committed wife Katie Von Bora who has come prepared with reams of testimony to hopefully absolve her husband of the charge by the Catholic Church of blasphemy, the unpardonable sin. She is played with emotion-packed authority by Kersti Bryan. Rest assured that the Devil has a full line-up of famous and infamous testifiers whom he believes will help his case: a re-trial following the Catholic Church's decree of excommunication of Luther on earth.

You might not expect a trial that entails such controversial religious issues as whether one's disobedience to religious dogma and doctrine is a sentence to eternal damnation, or whether creating of a spiritual movement in Germany was in direct defiance of that prescribed in Rome would be as funnily histrionic as this one is. The authors make their case both amusingly and formidably with a text that is filled to the brim with witty irreverence and impassioned rhetoric. If much of the rhetoric comes from Luther in his fevered search for grace, it also suits the prescribed intensity of Fletcher McTaggart's naturalistic performance.

With the Devil determined to forever put to rest (literally) his case against his nemesis on the issues of unquestioning faith and ethical imperatives, he has lined up some eloquent and controversial/adversarial historical figures. Each appearance providing them ample opportunities for either a contentious brouhaha or a comical tour-de-force.

One is neither shocked nor appalled by the appearance of Hitler (shades of Chaplin with an edge), as he smugly aligns with Luther's anti-Semitic tract; the analytical observations by Freud about Luther's troubled relationship with his father; the unimpressed Rabbi Josel, and the disarmingly unsophisticated support of Pope Francis of Luther's assault on the Papacy for its greed and power. These, and others, are played to perfection and without resorting to caricature by Mark Boyett.

Another fine actor Jamil A.C. Mangan also gets to play an arresting array of characters that include Martin Luther King, Jr., The Holy Roman Emperor, and Michael the Archangel. Each of these have been given wise and wry twists to their celebrity.

Under the direction of Michael Parva tension is built as the trial proceeds with flashbacks into Luther's turbulent life, struggles with his health, his devotion to his beliefs and his obsessive dedication to his cause. But no scene is more engaging than the one in which a young Katie fresh from a convent turns Martin's head away from his books and into her arms. Kersti Bryan's portrayal of Katie becomes more central to the plot as her conflicted feelings toward the depressed and ailing Luther gather in their validity and with a sense of empowerment. It happens in marked contrast to the increasingly desperate grandstanding by the infuriated and frustrated Devil in the play's gripping climactic moments.

The costumes designed by Nicole Wee relate imaginatively to the various time periods and characters addressed. The superb atmospheric lighting by Geoffrey D. Fishburn casts more than simple illumination on this fine production by the Fellowship for Performing Arts, an organization that creates theatre from a Christian world view. Whatever your view, I suspect you will be enthralled as I by this damned (apology to the Devil) good show.

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Martin Luther on Trial by Chris Cragin-Day & Max McLean Directed by Michael Parva

Cast: Paul Schoeffler (The Devil), Kersti Bryan (Katie Von Bora), John Michalski (St. Peter), Mark Boyett (Hitler, St. Paul, Josel, Freud, Hans Luther & Pope Francis), Fletcher McTaggart (Martin Luther), Jamil A.C. Manigan (Tetzel, confessor, Martin Luther King, Jr., Philip Melanchthon, The Holy Roman Emperor & Michael the Archangel)
Set Design: Kelly James Tighe
Costume Design: Nicole Wee
Lighting Design: Geoffrey D. Fishburn
Original Music & Sound Design: Quentin Chiappetta
Production Manager: Drew Francis
Stage Manager: Elizabeth Ann Goodman
Running Time: 2 hours 10 minutes including intermission
Fellowship for Performing Arts at the Pearl Theatre, 333 West 42nd Street. Tickets: $65.
Performances: Tuesday through Thursday at 7pm; Friday and Saturday at 8pm, Sunday at 3pm. There are 2pm matinees on Wednesday and Saturday.
From 12/2/16 Opened 12/14/16 Ends 01/29/17
Review by Simon Saltzman based on performance 12/20/16

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