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A CurtainUp Review
Wittenberg is the brainchild of playwright David Davalos, who in an interview claims to be fascinated with Shakespeare's emphasis on Hamlet's specific school. According to legend, Dr. John Faustus was on the faculty at Wittenberg, and of course Martin Luther was also famously associated with the school. Add in Hamlet's well-known alma mater and you have three intriguing characters, historical and fictional, all with the same university affiliation. Put them there at the same time, and you have the foundation for an interesting prequel story-or three, to be exact.
Davalos suggests that Hamlet (played by Sean McNall, reprising his recent role of the tragic prince), as indecisive as ever, is trying to choose his major under the conflicting tutelages of Dr. Faustus (played with charm and confidence by Scott Greer, reprising his role from an earlier production) and Rev. Martin Luther (Chris Mixon). The production bills this as a "struggle for the mind and allegiance of their star pupil Hamlet," but in practice the professors' relationship isn't nearly so charged. The two are close friends, and each ministers to the other, Faustus tending to Luther's physical health and Luther trying to tend to Faustus's spiritual wellness. Certainly they disagree with each other on just about everything theological, but they have no difficulty overlooking their differences over a beer at a local tavern (where Faustus has a regular gig playing "light lute"). But there's no doubt that Hamlet is a prize of sorts for both of them, and is drawn to both in equal measure-and when his uncertainty reaches a head, the stakes for the two men are raised a good deal. Still, the root of the play is light cleverness, not deep thought, and ultimately Davalos is at pains not to condemn any of his characters too strongly.
Director J.R. Sullivan (himself reprising his role as director of the show he first directed at its 2008 premiere in Philadelphia) takes this same tolerant approach — content to let his actors ease into their roles comfortably, and for their part the performers seem to enjoy the romp through a host of inside jokes and not so subtle references. Hamlet has a tennis match with Laertes, this time commenting on rackets instead of rapiers, Faustus works through his infatuation with Helen (whether or not of Troy isn't clear), and Luther has a revelation (95 of them, to be exact) about the church while on the privy. Those with a love of classic literature should be well pleased.
On the other hand, I'm not sure whether those not well-versed in Denmark's most famous prince, Faustian legend, or Protestant history will be quite as engaged. For all the fun of the show, it does have a tendency to get talky, and not every joke is crafted with nuance in mind. And more problematically, despite Davalos's claim that he wanted to make sure he gave a "good accounting of Luther," neither his writing nor Mixon's performance really carries that out-with rare exceptions Luther is a pretty insufferable stuffed shirt throughout the performance, totally outstripped by his rival. Indeed, Faustus is by far the most appealing of the characters in the play, and by far the most compelling philosophically and dramatically (though this may also be a function of how good Greer is in the role). Still, there's a lot to be said for a play which takes on three major story arcs and sets them up as believably and enjoyably as Wittenberg does, and so long as you don't expect miracles-from Luther or anyone else-you'll have a lot of fun at this production.