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Wittenberg is witty, and tiresome. The title is a joke. It took me a long time to get it, wondering why the cast of David Davalos’s Wittenberg at the Arden was pronouncing it with a soft W not a V-sound, as the Germans would. That’s the first thing that irked me about this clever play, which must be exhausting its talent. Scott Greer is magnificent as Doctor John Faustus, one bundle of appetites. Greg Wood plays Martin Luther so sensitively he could be the Hamlet. But no, that role goes to Shawn Fagan, the bright young prince at this university, whose mind the man of bulk and bluntness is vying for while the one with more subtlety aims for his soul.
It’s an entertaining concept: a meeting of real and fictional characters— Faust, Luther and Hamlet. Playwright Davalos says he got it from Steve Allen and from reading Shakespeare (in Hamlet it’s noted that the young prince went to the university of Wittenberg). Many of this play’s one-liners are worthy of TV comedy, but they alternate with long stretches of Copernican theory or Christian theology. The eyes glaze over. The play is weighted, freighted with ideas. Just when you think you know where it’s going and are beginning to care about the chasm between Faustus’s disbelief and Luther’s credo, here comes Hamlet with a dream or a vision and or we’re being taught the theory of the planets and, yawn, momentum’s gone.
Recalling Orson Welles
Doctor Faustus is the pivotal role and the most fun to watch: an errant monk and medical man, whose counsels leave him time to perform in coffee houses and pursue an ex-nun. (Actually she was a nun, but Faustus, having disregarded his own vows of celibacy, took care of that.) He’s the one to prod his confessor
Luther to write the 95 theses, which will launch the Protestant Reformation. Rather a stretch, yes? But it’s a fine role for Greer, whose charisma and range are well known to Philadelphia audiences. In this role his physical persona suggests an Orson Welles, a large compliment.
Despite Wood’s distinct talents, it taxes credibility to see Luther play such a wimpy position to Dr. Faustus. And the Hamlet role leaves me cold, undecided whether the play even needs him. The point is to show these characters early on before they became forever fixed as history remembers them. But even three becomes too many the way Davalos inconsistently handles— ladles on— his material. Hamlet is the weak link— the character, rather than the actor Shawn Fagan, who performs well enough but doesn’t do anything onstage compelling save one heck of a good scene in which he mimics a tennis match. Naturally, Hamlet’s undecided about his major at the university. Instead of father visions, Davalos gives him mother visions— sometimes the Blessed Mother— which range from silly to gratuitous. So are his lines from Shakespeare. As my English Mum would say: too clever by half.
Kate Udale takes the female roles, among them the barmaid in the student coffeehouse where Greer as Faustus sings after hours, playing a mean medieval guitar. J.R. Sullivan’s direction is as swift as possible, given Davalos’s excess of words. The author has talent to burn but needs a better editor, or perhaps another medium? Cleverness appears his forte. His past work includes New Yorick, New Yorick and Johnnius Caerson, about the Late-night TV wars.
To read another review by Robert Zaller, click here.
To read another review by Steve Cohen, click here.
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