Witty History Lessons Make Wittenberg Grade A Comedy
Knock, knock. Who's there? Wit. Wit who? Wit more plays like Wittenberg, I'd go to Fort Worth more often. The latest from Amphibian Stage Productions at the Sanders Theatre in Cowtown is as witty as Shaw, as wacky as Stoppard and never as wearying as Shakespeare's drama about a certain moody Danish prince, who figures heavily in the action.
Hamlet, played by New York import Robert James Walsh, is one of three main characters in Wittenberg, a comic conflation of history that imagines meetings of great minds. The two-act play by David Davalos finds Hamlet, pre-Hamlet, as an undergrad undecided on his major at the German university. He's torn between the diametrically opposing philosophies of two dynamic professors: Augustinian monk Martin Luther (Indiana-based actor Jay Duffer) and freewheeling, psychology-inventing Dr. John Faustus (Brandon J. Murphy). Both men are brilliant thinkers and bone-dry humorists. "A reminder that this is Principles of Christian Philosophy," Luther tells his class. "If you are in league with the Devil, you are in the wrong room and you want Dr. Faustus' philosophy seminar across the quad."
As Davalos depicts it, Wittenberg U. is a 16th century Berkeley, buzzing with challenging lectures and after-hours debauchery. Off-campus, Faustus strums his lute and sings bawdy folk-rock at a grotty beer hall called The Bunghole. He also introduces the constipated Luther to an exotic beverage from Arabia, coffee, which loosens Luther's bowels and his tongue. Hopped up on java, Luther and Faustus argue the great questions of the universe, including the startling new discovery by Copernicus that the earth revolves around the sun and not vice versa (the Bible states otherwise, insists Luther).
Caught in the middle is young Hamlet, whose soul is batted back and forth in an existential tennis match between the older men. "A theology degree only serves you when you're talking to God," Faustus tells his student. "A philosophy degree serves when you're talking to yourself."
"God is everywhere," says Luther.
"Everything is a choice," says Faustus.
To be a priest or to be a prince, that is the question Hamlet struggles with in the second act. Amid flashes of verbal fireworks, Davalos drops deviously clever clues to what Hamlet will be thinking, saying and doing later in Shakespeare's play. (Faustus' office number is 2B.) And the contemporary playwright can't help taking a swipe at the Bard's talent for adaptation. When Hamlet says he's reading The Murder of Gonzago, Faustus says, "I hear they're making a play out of it." (It was Shakespeare's source material.)
Davalos' ease with the terms of art of philosophy, religion, psychology, history, astronomy, you name it, plus the craft of language he's put to use in Wittenberg, beg comparisons to Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (about two characters who appear briefly in Hamlet) and the imagined interactions of James Joyce, Lenin and others in Stoppard's Travesties. But unlike Stoppard's dizzying torrents of words, Davalos' dialogue is less self-satisfied and not such a chore to decode. "Language can be a tool," says Dr. Faustus, as he leads Hamlet through a fast round of word association, "and it can also be a shield." Wittenberg, for all its classical references, drops its shiny armor enough to sound coolly contemporary.
Amphibian's production, directed with bouncy energy by David A. Miller, brings expert method to all this madness. The three leads are terrific, especially Murphy, whose sexy voice has a hint of whiskey rasp. Fort Worth actress Jule Nelson-Duac has good moments playing all the women's roles, from the Bunghole's chief wench to the courtier who delivers rotten news about the state of Denmark.
Scenic designer Sean Joseph Urbantke, putting the stage in traverse between two sections of audience, enhances the tennis game metaphor. Back and forth, we watch Hamlet bounce between the offices of Faustus and Luther. A surprise appearance by the Virgin Mary (Nelson-Duac again) comes from behind the Wittenberg door to which Luther's 95 Theses are nailed as a devilish prank by Faustus.
Other than one actor's mispronunciation of "Baden-Baden" in this production, the only flaw in Wittenberg is its length. "Brevity is the soul of wit," said Polonius in Hamlet, sounding ever so much like one of those profs who tried to talk sense into the kid back at college.
From the sublime to the ridonkulous and into the grotty murk of our own theatrical Bunghole goes the Pocket Sandwich Theatre. It's corny melodrama time again with The Final Adventures of Hercules, an hour of mythological spoofery spread out over two hours and change, including two long intermissions needed for the serving of the Pocket's "food" — I use the term warily — and for the settling of checks before the third act.
The play by Chris Irby and Sean Freeman requires no knowledge of Greek myths beyond cartoons and comic books. Seeking treasure, Herc (Andrew Dillon, coiffed like Starsky's pal Hutch) sails to the "Isle of Lucy" and the "Caverns of Uranus," battles the Minotaur (Matt Doden) and wins a beauty (Emily Henderson). Evil Queen Milfodite, played by Trista Wyly, Pocket's favorite vamp, vamps with gusto. But she's vanquished by a script whose best joke is "Oh-Em-Zeus!"
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