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Portland Stage

Rob McFadyen and Michael Hammond
"Go not to Wittenberg," Gertrude implores Hamlet in Shakespeare's tragedy. And in attendance at the Portland Stage Company on May 5, 2013, one could truly understand her motherly concern, for the Wittenberg of David Davalos' wickedly funny play is a place of irreverence and insurrection, a university where doubt battles faith, and the world stands poised on the brink of revolution. Yet, judging from the delighted response to this erudite, witty, often bawdy historical comedy, the audience seemed glad—as was this critic—to make that journey.

The award-winning Wittenberg, which first premiered in 2008 at Philadelphia's Arden Theatre Company, has enjoyed more than twenty productions at American regional theatres and abroad. Davalos, who specializes in historical and literary based dramas and who names his mentors as Shakespeare, Shaw and Stoppard, has set his play in Germany in 1517 at the university of Wittenberg, a crucible of "modern learning," where the faculty boasts the likes of Martin Luther, still an Augustinian monk, and John Faustus, renowned doctor of philosophy, as well as their prize pupil, Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, who as a senior is faced with declaring his major—divinity or philosophy—a choice which mirrors the ideological struggle that engages all three men.

"To believe of not to believe," Luther characterizes the conflict; "to be or not to be"—that is to choose to live fully or not to—is Faustus' take on the challenge. "Question everything," Faustus urges Hamlet, and Davalos' characters do, indeed, seek answers to the big riddles of life in 16th century Europe. They ponder God's role in creation, the meaning of love and lust, the order and infinite possibilities of a Copernican universe.

Not yet the grand heroes of tragedy, Luther stands poised to post his 95 Theses; Faustus has not yet sealed his bargain with Mephistopheles, and Hamlet has not inherited his fateful kingship. Stripped of their mythic stature, Luther, Faustus and Hamlet wear only their words as armor. Davalos' play relies on a keen, fast-paced verbal humor, both erudite and mundane—a plethora of literary puns, allusions, double entendres—to tell his tale. The dialogue consists largely of quick repartee requiring impeccable diction and timing.

Happily, the Portland Stage Company's ensemble is up to the challenge. As Faustus, Michael Hammond strikes just the right blend of swagger, skepticism, and down-to-earth humanity. He brings a strong vocal range to the part, proving himself capable of the philosopher's ranting lectures as well as his incongruously amusing stints as a coffee house singer.

Hall Hunsinger chooses to portray Luther as a more vulnerable man rather than the firebrand often depicted in history or on the stage (think John Osborne's Luther). In the context of Wittenberg, this works, however, because Davalos' Luther is a reluctant rebel, tricked into his break with Rome by Faustus' deviousness. Hunsinger's down-to-earth, gentle manner serves as a fine foil to Faustus' wiliness.

As Hamlet, Rob McFadyen gives an appropriately understated, yet riotously funny and touching performance which captures the prince's moral confusion and self-doubt. Given many of the most recognizable literary quotations, McFadyen manages to deliver the Elizabethan language with a deadpan naturalness that preserves Davalos? irony. McFadyen also possesses a strong physical presence that makes the most of scenes like the tennis match or the ghost's apparition.

Rounding out the cast is Caley Milliken as The Eternal Feminine, who delineates her various incarnations from pub waitress to a sluttish Helen of Troy to the Virgin Mary with alluring panache.

Ron Botting and Merry Conway's co-direction is sprightly and economical. The strength of their staging is the momentum they create. In a play built primarily on words, they help the actors encase these in a fluid pace and movement.

Anita Stewart's compact set is an attractive, serviceable, modular construction in subdued hues. Hugh Hanson's richly detailed, historically accurate costumes are standouts. Andrew Hungerford's lighting design contributes effectively to the flow of action, while Seth Asa Sengel's sound design evokes the medieval milieu, amusingly and anachronistically punctuated by folk-rock coffee house songs.

The Portland Stage Company's Wittenberg reinforces David Davalos' reputation as a playwright of intelligence, wit, and nimble humor, while proving that clever, literary and literate theatre, when given a stylish production such as this one, will find an appreciative audience.

Wittenberg is the company's last production of the 2012-2013 season and runs through May 19, 2013. For ticketing and other information, visit The company will launch their 2013-2014 season on September 24 with August Wilson's Ma Rainey's Black Bottom.

The Portland Stage Company, 25 Forest Ave, Portland, Maine, 04101. An Actors Equity affiliated professional, not-for-profit company Anita Stewart, Executive Director.

Photo: Aaron Flacke/courtesy Portland Stage Company

--Carla Maria Verdino-Süllwold

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