The year is 1517, the place Wittenberg, Germany, site of a famous university. The world is in turmoil in David Davalos’s play, Wittenberg, with new ideas swirling and old certainties dissolving. Martin Luther, priest and professor of theology, is composing his 95 theses, which challenge Johann Tetzel, a friar who sold indulgences, and the general greed and corruption of the Catholic Church. They also posit the Bible as the source of divine knowledge, available to man directly without the church’s intervention, and argue that humans are saved by faith rather than good deeds. Then there’s the pretty much fictional Dr. John Faustus. (A man of this name did exist at the time, but the character in the play is shaped more by Marlowe and Goethe’s fictional versions.) He’s a rationalist, a sort of sixteenth-century Richard Dawkins, whose thirst for knowledge and constant questioning will, in Luther’s eyes, certainly damn his soul to hell — but only if such a place exists, believes unrepentant Faustus. We all know that he’s about to sell his soul to the devil — if that creature exists — but he hasn’t yet. And both men are trying to deal with the knowledge — Faustus with delight, Luther with rage and distress — that in Poland, Copernicus has created a model of the universe in which the earth revolves around the sun instead of vice versa.
To this place comes a student named Hamlet, who, we now learn, was awash in theological, philosophical and psychological confusion even before being summoned home to Elsinore at the beginning of Shakespeare’s famous play. Hamlet is having unsettling dreams, and he doesn’t know which mentor to believe. Though he’s close to graduation, he hasn’t yet decided on a major.
Davalos has no problem mixing time periods and vernaculars, referring to majors and tenure as if Hamlet were a student at the University of Colorado, having Faustus sing a version of “Que Sera Sera” at a club called the Bunghole, and creating dialogue that moves easily from dignified to scatalogical, from contemporary slang to iambic pentameter, and throwing in wham-bam jokes about constipation (Luther’s) that give new meaning to the term “tight-assed.” There are also serious passages of genuine theological exegesis and argument, as well as many laugh lines, particularly when the audience recognizes actual lines from Shakespeare’s Hamlet popping up in fractured and surprising ways. Hamlet listens in awe to his two powerful and talkative — oh, so talkative — professors, and comes up with a rather lovely synthesis of religion and science when he describes the sun as Jesus Christ, son of God, and says that the world does indeed revolve around him.
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The idea is fascinating, but there’s a real problem in execution: Wittenberg isn’t so much a play as an extended concept. It has a few dramatic scenes and some interesting set pieces: a funny, well-choreographed tennis match in which Hamlet plays an invisible — though vocally very present — Laertes, leaping and capering, taking crazy swings with his racquet; Luther reciting the Song of Songs in his pulpit as Faustus makes love to his Helen. “Was this the face that launched a thousand ships/And burnt the topless towers of Ilium?” Faustus asked earlier, but this Helen’s no queen: She’s making love to him for money. What’s missing, though, is dramatic energy, forward motion, any sense that these characters are actual people, as opposed to mouthpieces for varying points of view. For all Luther’s passion and Faustus’s cheek and charm, the evening begins to feel a lot like the audience is being cornered by a conspiracy theorist who won’t shut up.
The performances are good, with Lawrence Hecht as Faustus and Howard Swain as Luther; Ben Bonenfant is a lithe, charming Hamlet and Mare Trevathan a sensual Helen. There are some decent jokes — about Faustus’s apparently magical cures, for example, and just how Luther’s theses ended up on that church door — as well as some quite wonderful insights. “It’s not just individuals who get sick,” Faustus says, having expressed his admiration for parts of Luther’s great work and admitted that he’s helped disseminate it. “Institutions become diseased. Societies, cultures, whole civilizations die from plagues of ignorance. We’re doctors. We have the ability, and the responsibility, to treat the illness. What you wrote was a prescription. I filled it.”
Amen to that.
Wittenberg, presented by the Colorado Shakespeare Festival through August 8, Mainstage, University of Colorado at Boulder, 303-492-8008, coloradoshakes.org.