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Regional Reviews: Phoenix

Wittenberg
Southwest Shakespeare Company
Review by Gil Benbrook | Season Schedule

Also see Gil's recent reviews of Fiddler on the Roof, Evita, and City of Angels


Marshall Glass and David Dickinson
Photo by Patrick Walsh
David Davalos' Wittenberg is a humorous prequel, of sorts, to Shakespeare's Hamlet, the story of Martin Luther, and Christopher Marlowe's play Doctor Faustus. Full of witty word play, Davalos has taken the nugget of information that Shakespeare dispersed in his play concerning Wittenberg being Hamlet's alma mater, and where he was present when he received the news of his father's death, as his launching pad for this inspired play. When Davalos remembered that Dr. John Faustus taught at Wittenberg before his deal with the devil and that Martin Luther was a professor of theology at the school before he started the Protestant Reformation, he was able to create an intriguing historical comedy that places all three men at the German college at the same time. Southwest Shakespeare presents the local premiere of the 2008 play in an exceptionally cast and well-directed production featuring fiery barbs and pitting philosophy against theology.

It's 1517 and Hamlet, just returned to Wittenberg, has been having nightmares and has yet to declare his major. His tennis game is suffering, yet he finds himself in a tennis match of his own, being volleyed between his two professors Faustus and Martin Luther and forced to side with one over the other. These two fatherly figures disperse their knowledge to Hamlet in a series of fast and furious scenes. Faust tells Hamlet to "question everything" whereas Luther simply states that "God is the answer" to his questions. While Hamlet is at first the focus of the play, more importantly, Davalos also shows us the friendship and dependency these two scholars have with each other. While Davalos does tip his hat in the battle of wits to Faustus, giving him more stage time and portraying him as less conflicted and more in control than the pious Luther, the end result is an inspired, thought-provoking, and intelligently written exposé of these three well-known characters that takes us right up to the beginning of Shakespeare's drama.

Having some knowledge of these three men helps to get the jokes, names, and references, but even if you only know a little about them, the easy to understand language enables those of us who aren't highly intellectual scholars to fully comprehend the themes and ideas Davalos brings up—most of them concerning freedom of choice and doubting what we are taught to believe is true. He also incorporates, whimsically, some famous lines from Hamlet, turning them on their ear to have even more of a comical pop.

Kent Burnham's savvy direction is matched by a cast that smartly, and humorously, portrays these famous characters, warts and all. As Faustus, David Dickinson is charming, feisty, argumentative and full of life. Written as a man who has a need to challenge those around him, Faustus also occasionally struggles with his own issues. Marshall Glass is introspective as Luther. He is exceptional at showing us how Luther also struggles, though his issues are with the ideas of the church and the doubts he has with their teachings and the Church's hypocrisies. Luther is saddened and torn and Glass exhibits those conflicted feelings exceptionally. William Wilson is equally adept at portraying the conflict that Hamlet faces, both in his nightmares and in his waking life. While Wilson is a gifted comic and delivers his many humorous lines with a natural ease, his final scene, as Hamlet has received news of his father's death, is serious, and delivered so well that it makes me hope to see Wilson play Hamlet in Shakespeare's tragedy one day. Allison Sell portrays four very different women with aplomb. Her Helen of Troy, Faustus' romantic partner, is luminous in her revelation that, while her flesh is for sale, her soul is not.

Burnham's sharp direction never falters in ensuring the humorous moments land yet adds a stirring relevance to the dramatic ones as well. The creative elements are sublime yet simple, with Patrick Walsh's scenic design and Maci Holser's costumes evocative of the 16th century period, but with plenty of comical, and even a few modern, touches. The evocative and lush lighting by Daniel Davisson adds depth to the nightmare and dream sequences. Peter Bish's sound design includes a few funny sound effects that give zing to those bits.

Zany and thought-provoking aren't two descriptions that usually go together, yet the smartly written Wittenberg manages to be both and it also doesn't require you to have a philosophy or theology degree to easily comprehend the ideas, themes, and debates the play raises. Southwest Shakespeare Company's production has a gifted cast, clear direction, and excellent creative aspects and the end result is charming, intellectual, confident and inspiring, yet also extremely hilarious.

Wittenberg runs through March 12th, 2016, with performances at the Mesa Arts Center, 1 East Main Street in Mesa, AZ. Tickets can be purchased at swshakespeare.org or by calling 480.644.6500

Written by David Davalos
Director: Kent Burnham
Scenic Design: Patrick Walsh
Costume Design: Maci Holser
Lighting Design: Daniel Davisson
Hair and Make-Up Design: Sasha Wordlaw Properties Design: Brianna Catlin
Sound Design: Peter Bish

Cast:
John Faustus: David Dickinson
Martin Luther: Marshall Glass
Hamlet: William Wilson
The Eternal Feminine: Allison Sell


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