'Wittenberg' is an intellectual workout with Hamlet, Faustus and Luther
A review of Seattle Shakespeare Company's overstuffed romp "Wittenberg," which is about Hamlet's years at college — where he suffers on the tennis court and debates philosophies with John Faustus and Martin Luther.
Seattle Times theater critic
'Wittenberg'Through Dec. 5, Seattle Shakespeare Company, Center House Theatre, lower level, Seattle Center; $22-$36 (206-733-8222 or www.seattleshakespeare.org).
Alas, poor Hamlet.
You think you've got problems? Not only is the kid torn between two majors and two professor-mentors who represent the opposite philosophical poles of Reason and Faith. His tennis backhand is also suffering. Zounds!
Even before he's back in Denmark, to deal with the death of his father, Shakespeare's fabled prince is bedeviled by ambivalence in "Wittenberg," an impressive if overstuffed comic fantasia by David Davalos.
Seattle Shakespeare Company is presenting the local debut of "Wittenberg" in rep with the troupe's excellent version of "Hamlet."
In the exceedingly (and exhaustingly) clever, intellect-tickling "Wittenberg," Hamlet (an energetic and articulate Connor Toms) is a virtual straight man for two heavily embroidered and loquacious historical figures: the alchemist-philosopher John Faustus (the expertly deadpan Chad Kelderman) and the maverick theologian and clergyman Martin Luther (Michael Patten).
Set in 1517 at Hamlet's alma mater, Wittenberg University in Germany, the script takes a plethora of teasing, erudite liberties with fact and fiction. The real-life model for the legendary Faust (immortalized in Goethe's play about the character's pact with the devil) is a matter of dispute. But one likely suspect did live and teach in Wittenberg in the 1500s. So did Martin Luther.
Davalos imagines a combative but fond friendship between them. And in the spirit of early Tom Stoppard plays (especially the "Hamlet"-themed "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead"), "Wittenberg" is crammed with puns, parodies, punch lines and pontification — a gold mine for college lit majors with stamina.
Kelderman's wryly skeptical, party-dog Faustus speaks in modern slang, references rock bands and movie stars and holds lengthy, wine-soaked philosophical debates with his pal, Patten's intense Luther (whose speech is more formal, some of it lifted from the church reformer's own theoretical writings).
Faustus also loses his head over uber-party girl Helen of Troy (Michelle Chiachiere, who handily handles several female roles). He performs a goofy music and comedy act at an off-campus pub. And he dispenses potent remedies, which he samples himself — Moroccan hash, that weird new brew called coffee.
A caffeine jag perks up Hamlet's tennis game. His speech differs from that of his profs: his is a hilariously ornate parody of Shakespearean verse (with the real thing marbled in). He's a good kid but a little nuts in the crossfire between Faustus' cosmological agnosticism and moral relativisms, and Luther's eloquent calls to faith.
Following Hamlet's lead, I'm of two minds about "Wittenberg." Staged briskly, but not always fluidly by Rita Giomi, the play's ingenuity, smarts and verbal prankishness are amusing. And the mental aerobics required to keep up with the actors make for a good brain workout.
Davalos also seems, at moments, to be seriously pondering the clash of the two conflicting worldviews that have long dominated Western civilization. They're still hard to reconcile, and the clashing still creates havoc for humankind.
But more than two ambling hours of arch talking heads and verbal gags can induce some brain freeze and impatience. All those words, words, words, without many deeds, can make you feel like you're at a seminar with a cunning lecturer who could use more visual aids — or a good editor.
Misha Berson: email@example.com
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