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BWW Review: LUTHER'S TRUMPET at Mason Arts At Home And George Mason University's School Of Theater

George Mason University's School of Theater Eases Back with Hybrid Performance

BWW Review: LUTHER'S TRUMPET at Mason Arts At Home And George Mason University's School Of Theater
Edward Gero as Martin Luther in Mason School of Theater's digital production of "Luther's Trumpet." Photo by: Shelby Burgess/Strategic Communications/George Mason University

Historical figures can make for excellent theatrical deep-dives, particularly if their influence outsized their own lives. Martin Luther, father of the Reformation Movement, is certainly one such figure. The 16thCentury Reformation Movement not only transformed Christianity, but all of European and global history; indeed, even those of us who aren't Christian tend to have more than a passing familiarity with the monk who famously nailed his 95 Theses to the doors of Castle Church. But, in the grand scheme, much more attention is paid to the content of his grievances with the Catholic Church, and the lasting impact of his revolutionary approach to Christianity on Europe's political and religious structures.

George Mason University's School of Theater seeks to explore the more human side of this larger-than-life figure in its latest production, Luther's Trumpet. The 2018 play by James Reston Jr traces Luther's life from his increasing agitation with the Catholic Church's pay-to-play structure to his status as a political and religious exile to his recognition as leader of a successful movement. At the same time, Reston's play dives a bit deeper to also examine Luther's own doubts about his faith and ability to live up to the standards he sets for the Church. His crisis of faith amidst his pushes for an overhaul of the Church and its structures is a compelling focus for humanizing such a pivotal figure.

One interesting aspect of the George Mason production is the technology debuted for this performance, the Window Wall. Christopher d'Amboise, the Heritage Professor of Dance at Mason and this production's Visual Dramaturg, had developed a program that allows dancers to teach and choreograph across distances, and that technology has been introduced in this show, allowing for the limited stage actors to interact with additional actors who are incorporated into the video screen setting. It doubly works in this particular situation because the characters featured with this technology (Pope Leo X, Cardinal Giuliano de Medici, The Devil) are all, by nature, meant to be more distant, so it's a clever way to convey this while easing away from fully virtual productions.

BWW Review: LUTHER'S TRUMPET at Mason Arts At Home And George Mason University's School Of Theater
Craig Wallace as Pope Leo X and Kevin Murray as Tetzel in Mason School of Theater's digital production of "Luther's Trumpet." Photo courtesy Mason School of Theater.

Director Rick Davis incorporates this technology into the production well - actors on the sound stage and joining via video are able to interact quite seamlessly, and it felt as though the technology was able to enhance the storytelling elements of the show. At the same time, it's hard to really tell if it was the oddness of interacting with a screen, stage directions, the material, or skills that left some performances feeling a bit flat. Many of the intervening scenes of conversations between Pope Leo X (Craig Wallace) and Charles V (Hasan Crawford) felt stilted, as did some of Luther's (Edward Gero) interactions with his trusted friend, Philip (Steven Franco). Even some of momentous decisions seemed to lose some of their gravitas in presentation, though admittedly this could also be due to the very real toll virtual formats take on live performances.

But where Luther's Trumpet really shines is when we reach Luther's sources of conflict. Gero's titular portrayal humanizes Luther and holds the audience's focus throughout the show, but in those moments of confrontation - when he faces off with Father Tetzel (Kevin Murray), the Charles V (Crawford), and the Devil (David Tatel, who originated the role) - his performance elevates to another level. We see a man with deep conviction who has doubts of his own ability to uphold those values, and the play itself goes from mildly interesting to outright intriguing. These are the moments when the audience perks up, where the whole show becomes noticeably better. Gero's exchange with Tatel as Luther struggles with his inner demons in the form of The Devil was particularly fascinating to watch, as their sparring energizes the whole performance.

Overall, Luther's Trumpet is a fair production with an interesting premise - some parts are more intriguing than others, so the overall impression leaves a little more to be desired. But those electric moments when Luther confronts his adversaries and his stirring speech at the show's close definitely elevate it beyond that "fair" evaluation into something fascinating.

Luther's Trumpet, presented by George Mason University's School of Theater, is available to stream through June 4th. Production run time is approximately 80 minutes, and viewings are free, but require registration. Show information and registration are available on the George Mason University website.

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