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A CurtainUp New Jersey Review

Something is rotten in the Papal state. — Rev. Fr. Martin Luther

Photo:Jerry Dalia Jordan Coughtry as Hamlet (Photo: Jerry Dalia)
Of course the title of David Davalos's play rings a bell. But if you are thinking of the University in Springfield, Ohio you are a little off the mark. Although it is the American cousin of Wittenberg University in Germany that is famous as Professor/Theologian Martin Luther's bully pulpit for his Ninety-Five Theses and principally the birthplace of the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century. It is also famed in fiction as the University where Shakespeare's Hamlet and Horatio studied and is the setting for this audaciously funny and intellectually stimulating satire in which we see Luther and his fellow professor, the controversial philosopher Doctor Faustus at loggerheads as to which course of study the senior student Hamlet will choose as his major.

Buddies despite their on-going and stimulating disputations, Faustus and Luther will also be enjoying each other's company as well as the lager at the local pub where Faustus has a gig singing a little rock to his own guitar accompaniment. How could Hamlet not have had his head spinning with doubt and uncertainty when coming into contact with these men of intellect and consequence within such a confluence of new thought?

There are lots of dazzling and dizzying words dispensed in Davalos's enjoyable play. It's set in 1517 Germany and brings together fiction, fact and fable.

The splendid cast for this Shakespeare Theater of New Jersey production does Davalos's s text justice and creates characters who will keep you intoxicated by their blather and laughing with their bluster.

There are shades of Tom Stoppard by way of Monty Python lurking behind the characters, but they have a way of inviting us into their own and very iconic spheres of study. The plot seems primarily committed to the stimulating oral battles between Luther and Faustus. Whether or not they actually serve to influence or change the mind of the already and recognizably befuddled, but inquisitive and also naive student Hamlet is left for us to ponder. The play is brilliantly twisty and laced with brainy twaddle as it moves from one almost absurdist situation to the next. What fun when a little escapist sex in the form of The Eternal Feminine in invited to participate.

Princely attired in brocaded knickers and jacket and high-laced boots, Hamlet could not have been given a better interpreter than sweet-faced, wide-eyed Jordon Coughtry. His only constant, and its suits him and us just fine, is that he remains charmingly befuddled while listening in turn to Faustus's exuberant rants and Luther's impassioned sermons. Between studies Hamlet plays and wins a riotously comical tennis match that should with certainly also put Wittenberg on the map.

Anthony Marble is terrific as the dashing John Faustus, womanizer from first to last and in between a dispenser of mind-altering potions and drugs (how about coffee?) to his students. Mark H. Dold is amusing as the up-tight and literally constipated Luther, a fervent critic of the Catholic Church. You can see this in the way he sashays around a bit too much in his vestments. Erin Partin is gorgeous and sexy as a free-spirited bar-maid, a seductive Helen (presumably of Troy) and also, in Hamlet's hallucination, as the mother of Christ.

The plot includes a little explanation regarding the rebellious Luther's fear of being excommunicated and condemned by the Catholic Church and for the stand he takes opposing their selling indulgences. We also get a more amusing glimmer of the fear felt by Faustus of losing his soul to the devil. One very funny scene puts their platforms into the right perspective at the same time. Faustus is seen having wild and noisy sex with a wench while at the same moment Luther is giving an ever so impassioned sermon on the Song of Solomon. Who eventually wins Hamlet's head and heart is less important than how cleverly Davalos has constructed that resolve.

Under the fine direction of Joseph Discher, the play withstands the amount of speechifying that it contains without becoming tedious. Set Designer Brittany Vasta deserves kudos for the numerous, fancifully designed settings that appear on a revolving stage, as does Hugh Hanson for his whimsical 16th century costumes. For its premiere production at Philadelphia's Arden Theatre, Wittenberg received the 2008 Barrymore Award for Outstanding New Play. Aside from being a commendably smart introduction to Lutherian theology, Faustian legendry and Shakespearean fiction, it is primarily just a joyous romp through the hallowed halls of Wittenberg U.

To read Curtainup's review of the off-Broadway production go here .

Wittenberg by David Davalos
Directed by Joseph Discher

Cast: Anthony Marble (John Faustus), Jordan Coughtry (Hamlet), Mark H. Dold (Rev. Fr. Martin Luther), Erin Partin (The Eternal Feminine)
Scenic Design: Brittany Vasta
Costume Design: Hugh Hanson
Lighting Design: Matthew E. Adelson
Sound Design: Steven L. Beckel
Production Stage Manager: Denise Cardarelli
Running Time: 2 hours 10 minutes including intermission
Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey at the F.M. Kirby Shakespeare Theatre on the campus of Drew University, 36 Madison Avenue, Madison, NJ.
(973) 408-5600
Tickets: start at $32.0; Student Rush: $15.00 Performances: Tuesday, Wednesdays and Sundays at 7:30 pm; Thursday, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 pm; and Saturdays and Sundays at 2 pm. From 09/10/14 Opened 09/13/14 Ends 09/28/14 Review by Simon Saltzman based on performance 09/18/14
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