BWW Review: Reason Meets Faith, and WITTENBERG Is The Winner: Exquisitely Witty and Deep
Before Hamlet's plunge into depression, Faust's deal with the Devil, and Luther's excommunication, there was Wittenberg ~ presumably! In a work of literary mastery and divinely-inspired imagination, David Davalos presumes, and he conjures a cosmic convergence of iconic figures in WITTENBERG that is as finely threaded as the tapestries that embrace Patrick Walsh's meticulously designed set.
To be fully realized, Davalos's work requires a performance of equal mastery. The cast of Southwest Shakespeare Company's current production of WITTENBERG, astutely directed by Kent Burnham, more than rises to the challenge. Here's an ensemble devoutly to be wished, teeming with comedic energy and versatility ~ David Dickinson as Faustus, Marshall Glass as Luther, William Wilson as Hamlet, and Allison Sell as The Eternal Feminine.
At the heart and soul of the comedy is an impassioned debate between reason and faith.
Luther, a devotee of the Word of God, is immersed in questions of faith, reflecting on the way God communicates with Man, on how to recognize the voice of God, on the role of the Church as intermediary between Man and God. Constipation inflicts him. The sale of indulgences by Papal emissary Johann Tetzel inflame him. He cannot countenance the Holy Father's trafficking in human souls solely to replenish the Vatican's coffers. This may be the straw that breaks the cleric's back. So, Luther seeks counsel for both his gastronomic and theological discomforts from philosopher Faustus.
Ever the skeptic, Faustus defines true philosophy as an "insolent child" that, despite God's answers, insists on asking, Why? Thus, the doubter exhorts a resistant Luther to challenge the Church. A dabbler as well in medicinal remedies, Faustus prescribes a laxative and instructs Luther to jot down his complaints, which, yes, will amount to 95 Theses.
Hamlet enters the mix as a matriculating student. Faustus and Luther enjoin him to select a major that fits their personal preferences. The Dane, however, is confused ("his brain is strained") about what path to choose as his worldview has been cast in doubt. Before arriving at Wittenberg, he studied with Copernicus whose heliocentric theory of the universe, he believes, must cast doubt on all the Church's teachings. What to do?
It is in the lively jousting and volley of ideas and in the emerging epiphanies that WITTENBERG revels. Dickinson, Glass, and Wilson are phenomenal ~ richly, crisply, and believably channeling their characters. Ms. Sell ~ in multiple roles, including a sassy barmaid, the object of Faustus's affections, and a messenger of sad tidings from Elsinore ~ demonstrates once again her remarkable versatility.
There are numerous moments in the play that are simply ingenious, but two in particular defy spoilers: a smartly choreographed tennis match between Hamlet and an offstage Laertes and a reading of the Song of Songs ~ cum illustrative demonstration ~ that is relentless in its hilarity.
WITTENBERG is an intelligently constructed and whimsical prequel to what will be in the lives of its protagonists. It is as well a bountiful feast of intellectual allusions and rapid-fire plays on words, served up with precision and zest.
In Goethe's Faust, God declares to Mephistopheles, "Man still must err, while he doth strive." To be or not to be. To believe or not to believe. These questions persist, and so do the striving and erring. David Davalos has provided a marvelous platform for engaging and contemplating them. Director Burnham and cast excel in honoring the author's intention. Bravo! Bravo! Bravo!
WITTENBERG runs through March 12th in the Anita C. Farnsworth Theater at the Mesa Arts Center.
Photo credit to credit Patrick Walsh