BWW Reviews: Stages' WITTENBERG is Humorous and Intellectually Stimulating
All across the greater Houston area, public schools and post-secondary college and universities are back in session. Students are hopefully becoming enlightened through quality education. However, to kick off their annual Get Talking Series, Stages Repertory Theatre is giving audiences something to talk about with their production of David Davalos' WITTENBERG. Other entries into this year's trilogy include upcoming productions of Julia Cho's THE LANGUAGE ARCHIVE and Rebecca Gilman's DOLLHOUSE.
David Davalos' WITTENBERG, playing in Houston for the first time, puts William Shakespeare's Hamlet as the apt pupil caught in the crossfire between Christopher Marlowe's Dr. Faustus and the historicAl Martin Luther, a professor of theology and an important figure in the Protestant Reformation. As the ever-indecisive Hamlet is pitted between two opposing philosophies concerning faith and science, David Davalos utilizes witty dialogue and puns to draw out copious laughs. However, this sparkling comedy relies on your knowledge of Shakespeare's HAMLET, the Faustian legend, and Martin Luther's theological ideals for it's humor, so the more you know, the funnier the play will be for you.
Direction by Josh Morrison keeps David Davalos brisk, jaunty script moving at a break-neck pace. Each joke is perfectly timed. As the writing is often surprisingly dry for an American writer, the wry humor elicits everything from smirks to peals of laughter. The audience merrily rolls along with each sardonic witticism and pun, being invited to invest in and think about the theological debate occurring on stage. Being intellects and professors at Wittenberg Univeristy, Faustus and Martin Luther are each given their fair share of lengthy diatribes, which, under the direction of Josh Morrison, play out as fresh and invigorating speeches that are deeply cerebral, complex, and transcendent.
Luis Galindo's Faustus is constantly reminded to save his soul and to put away his hedonistic tendencies by Martin Luther, earning the evening's easiest laughs and smiles. While the fires of hell constantly threaten to undo him, Luis Galindo embodies a passionate and erudite character that yearns for proof of God's existence in the light of science and the Bible's own contradictions. "In the beginning, God created the heavens and earth," he states. Then he posits, "So God existed before the beginning?" He finds a logical loophole in the first line of the Bible. Luis Galindo's Faustus is a fascinating exploration of the science side of the faith debate.
Martin Luther, portrayed by Kenn McLaughlin, is an enthralling study in the faith side of the faith debate. He is steadfast in his belief that the scripture is right; however, he is plagued by his own concerns about how the fallibility of man is ruining the church. He takes issue with the idea of purgatory and how people can buy indulgences from the church to reduce the amount of time they spend there. Kenn McLaughlin's Martin Luther is vibrantly spirited in his characterization, never losing his faith in the face of his doubts.
Ryan Schabach, playing the indecisive Hamlet, works almost as a mouthpiece for the audience in the piece. David Davalos writes the role in iambic pentameter and keeps his most iconic character trait perfectly in tact. Easily being swayed by both sides of the debate, Ryan Schabach's Hamlet is unable to side completely with either one of the polar opposites. In effect, Ryan Schabach plays a hilarious monkey in the middle of a heavy debate.
Molly Searcy does a fantastic job playing Gretchen, Helen, Mary, and Lady Voltemand. Her sensual and sexually liberated Helen and her audacious Mary are the two most memorable characters she creates in the performance.
Scenic Design by Liz Freese is spectacular. The set captures the look of 1517 with graceful skill. On each column is a sculpted face lit from below, which adroitly helps create and maintain mood and ambience in every scene. Moreover, each wall and the floor are given the appearance of being made of stone.
John Smetak's Lighting Design is moody and atmospheric. It uses color with precision to maintain the perfect ambience for the more serious parts of the show and to be flashy and bright for the comedic parts of the show.