Wittenberg, at the Aurora in Berkeley, is written by contemporary American playwright David Davalos. It’s an historical comedy that employs an ingenious contrivance as the basis for the play’s plot. The scene is in Saxony, at the University of Wittenberg in 1517.
Prince Hamlet (yes, that Hamlet) is a senior there, studying under his favorite professors, Martin Luther and the fictional Doctor Faustus. Part of the play’s cleverness is that its basis is somewhat historically correct. Martin Luther, a Wittenberg university lecturer, posted his “95 Theses on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences” on the door of the Castle Church of Wittenberg in 1517. The author of Doctor Faustus, Christopher Marlowe, created his character as a teacher at Wittenberg in the early 1500s. In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the Danish Prince attended Wittenberg; however the school was founded in 1502, and Hamlet is supposed to take place centuries earlier. But the timing is close enough to make for an entertaining thesis.
Martin Luther (first rate Dan Hiatt), the stern God-fearing father of the Protestant Reformation that separated most of Northern Europe from Catholicism, is Hamlet’s professor of theology. Dr. Faustus (scintillating Michael Stevenson), a freethinking devil of a bon vivant, teaches philosophy. Hamlet (excellent Jeremy Kahn), already filled with youthful indecisiveness, is caught between his two professors’ conflicting influences.
As Dr. Faustus says, he and Luther are reminiscent of tiny angels and devils sitting on Hamlet’s impressionable shoulders. Whereas Faustus believes in questioning everything, Luther only looks to God for answers. The playwright implies that Hamlet’s contemplative nature wasn’t caused by his father’s death and his mother’s quick remarriage to his uncle. Rather, it was the incompatibility between his teachers that caused Hamlet’s quandaries.
One might imagine that Wittenberg is a drama with serious and fascinating discussions with insightful ideas and “aha” moments. Although the play has its philosophical aspects, the lightly amusing, but incessant, one-liners, puns and literary allusions detract from what could have been either a more humorous play or a more noteworthy play of ideas. I enjoy comedies and many of the jokes are witty, yet the playwright seems to be reaching for every groan-inducing pun and allusion. After all, how many spoofs on the phrase, “to be” can one enjoy? One of many such examples: At one point, Faustus says, “To believe or not to believe.” Hamlet, head in hands replies, “That is the question.”
Among the highlights of Wittenberg are Hamlet’s tennis match against the unseen Laertes and the pub scenes in which Faustus sings and lusts after Helen (ably acted by Elizabeth Carter), the whore Faustus liberated but cannot keep. At the pub, Faustus and Luther, two drinking buddies, joust over notions of God, purgatory, life and its meaning with adversarial glee.
Director Josh Costello, new to Aurora, had to deal with a very silly first act. A slower pace might have helped the audience fully appreciate the nuances of the repartee. Nevertheless, Wittenberg will provide an entertaining evening of theater to those who can relate to the play’s theological and philosophical aspects, as well to its lowbrow absurdity.
So what we have is an historical, theological, philosophical comedy that mixes those four elements with varying degrees of success. The result is stimulating and interesting, but not always entirely satisfying.
Wittenberg runs through May 4, 2014. For information and tickets, visit the Aurora Theatre online.
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