Regional Reviews: St. Louis
In David Davalos' 2008 prequel, the prince of Denmark is just a dude: polite, well-spoken well-mannered, well-dressedbut completely unable to commit to a field of study, at what is now the Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg (founded in 1502). But he still hasn't declared a major, in his senior year, class of 1517. And, in this local premier at Upstream Theater, he's more John Cleese than Laurence Olivier, as played by the ever-so-slightly bonkers Casey Boland.
Of course, it's not the first riff on Hamlet (which dates back to about 1599). In Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, we get a mostly "backstage" version of Shakespeare's tragedy. And don't get me started on "Gilligan's Island." But, really, Hamlet was not considered "the greatest play ever written" until the 19th century, so it's probably a healthy thing that we're finally having a little fun with it. In Wittenberg, Hamlet's onstage college professors are ready to oblige, being as different as night and day: fussbudget-faithful Martin Luther (the wonderfully fraught Alan Knoll) and ultra-skeptical Dr. John Faustus (the seductively whimsical Steve Isom). Caught between their opposing philosophies, the young prince will go back to Elsinore with a head that can't stop spinning. There are glimmers of the famed soliloquies to come, and genuinely funny wordplay, scattered throughout, making this a worthy predicate to the great tragedy.
But Wittenberg is really more about Luther and Faust than Hamlet, so thank goodness director Philip Boehm got two charming actors to play these giants of spiritualism and rationalism, who embark on a couple of embroidered debates on their favorite topics. The thing that sparks their two-hour and change clash is the heretical claim by a yet another giant of history, the Polish astronomer Copernicus, who claimed that the Earth is not the center of the Universe, and not even the center of our own solar system.
And why is that important? Because if Earth (and mankind) is not the most important thing, at the Center of All Things, then maybe God's just not all that into us. So, you know, maybe we ought to start seeing other people, in other churches. Or, no churches at all. Even Martin Luther has to accede that things could be better, as the Church of Rome is busy selling forgiveness, in the form of "indulgences," to cover their own dinner and drinks. Luther's working on his 95 treatises during the play, with surprising results.
So, like King Lear or The Tempest, both the heavens and the earth are in upheaval. And (perhaps equally important) there's a St. Pauli-girl wench, played by Caitlin Mickey, who doubles as Faust's distant, cool inspiration Helen, and triples as a pretty terrific Virgin Mary. It's easily the funniest play from Upstream Theater to datethough just as challenging, and mentally exalting, as we've come to expect from the group.
Wittenberg, through February 10, 2019, at the Kranzberg Arts Center, 501 North Grand (at Olive), St. Louis MO. For tickets and information, visit www.upstreamtheater.org
Characters (in order of appearance)
* Actors' Equity Association
** Actors' Equity Association
*** United Scenic Artists Local 829