Southwest Shakespeare Company's "Wittenberg" at Mesa Arts Center is a Witty, Uber-Literary Romp

Written by Keridwen Cornelius Category: Performing Arts Issue: March 2016

Southwest Shakespeare Company cast in "Wittenberg"Combining Hamlet, Doctor Faustus, and Martin Luther and creating a comedy is the equivalent of mixing lead, nickel and iron and making gold. Playwright David Davalos has indeed achieved theatrical alchemy in this über-literary romp packed with witticisms that fly as fast as Hamlet’s tennis balls (more on that later).

At first blush, a depressive prince, a hubristic doctor, and a morally outraged ex-monk have little in common except unenviable fates (death by poisoned saber, eternal damnation, excommunication). But the characters’ paths cross in Wittenberg, Germany, where Hamlet studied and Faustus and Luther taught. Davalos sets this prequel to William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe’s plays in the months leading up to Luther’s act of defiance against Catholicism – nailing his 95 Theses on a church door. The mash-up casts Hamlet as the star pupil of both Luther and Faustus, who play a philosophical tug-of-war for Hamlet’s psyche: to believe or not to believe.

“God is the answer,” Luther counsels him. “Let an abiding faith steer you.”

“Question everything!” Faustus urges. “You’ve got to put your faith in doubt.”

Davalos conceived Wittenberg while cast as Rosencrantz in Hamlet, playing cribbage backstage with Guildenstern and wondering why the Dane is the Crown Prince of Indecision. His answer: because Hamlet had the voices of his two professors ping-ponging in his head. In arguably the play’s best scene, Luther and Faustus flank Hamlet like the proverbial shoulder-side angel and devil, vying to put a religious or secular spin on the meaning of Hamlet’s dream.

William Wilson as Hamlet in 'Wittenberg"Actor David Dickinson plays Doctor Faustus with a charismatic swagger befitting a wisecracking prof-slash-musician who plays the ukulele at the Bunghole tavern. (His riff on Robert Palmer’s “Bad Case of Loving You (Doctor, Doctor)” is hilarious.) As Martin Luther, Marshall Glass is endearingly earnest. It’s hard to tell if his occasional difficulty getting out words was accidental or deliberate. Either way, it works, underscoring how his expression and intentions are as constrained as his intestines (you’ll see what we mean). The debates between these frenemies, as Faustus encourages Luther to express his outrage at the selling of indulgences and pushes him toward dissent, are the play’s strongest, masterfully muddling heavy issues with humor.

William Wilson, as Hamlet, lacks the gravitas to play Shakespeare’s tragic hero. Here, he’s at his best playing tennis against Laertes while high on medieval marijuana. The comedic scene’s creative stage setting fits perfectly into Mesa Arts Center’s intimate Farnsworth Studio theater.

You’ll laugh a lot more during this play if you’re reasonably well-versed in Hamlet, the Faust legend, Lutheranism, and Nicolai Copernik, a.k.a. Nicolaus Copernicus. You’ll be moved a lot more if you’ve ever wrestled with religion and reason. And you’ll have a lot more fun if you sit back and let the anachronisms and the smartypants puns fly.

"Wittenberg"
Presented by Southwest Shakespeare Company
Mesa Arts Center
Through March 12
mesaartscenter.com/wittenberg