You might be forgiven for thinking that David Davalos' comedy Wittenberg is about Hamlet. After all, the 2008 play has its roots in Davalos playing Rosencrantz in a production of Hamlet and realizing that the Wittenberg the dithering Dane keeps talking about going back to in Shakespeare's tragedy is the same college where Doctor Faustus taught in Christopher Marlowe's play, and the same place Martin Luther taught theology, and where he nailed his 95 Theses to the church door in 1517. Wouldn't it be funny if all these famous 16th-century fictional characters and historical figures were all there at the same time?
And yes, as seen in Aurora Theatre Company's Bay Area premiere, it is pretty funny. But Hamlet is at best a minor character in this college comedy, an indecisive student preoccupied by bad dreams and existential angst. The spotlight is squarely on his professors, the pious theology teacher Luther and the libertine philosopher Faustus, and the unlikely friendship between them. Of course, it helps that both are marvelously compelling presences in director Josh Costello's lively staging.
Dan Hiatt is appropriately serious about salvation as Martin Luther, but he's also a thoughtful man of conscience with growing doubts about church policies. A frequent drinking buddy of Faustus', he disapproves of his colleague's sinful ways but clearly enjoys their lively debates. Michael Stevenson's louche Faustus is a charming and compulsively quippy scoundrel whose motto is to question everything. While Hamlet speaks in Elizabethan English (with a vague and indeterminate accent), hardly anybody else does, and Faustus's lingo and attitude is particularly modern. He's even a pub singer in his spare time, rocking out on his lute with barely-altered versions of rock and pop hits by the Who and Doris Day.
Jeremy Kahn's melodramatically moody Hamlet is counseled by both teachers, sometimes in simultaneous and contradictory interpretations of his dreams (paralleling the good and bad angels that advise Marlowe's Faustus). But the real tension is between the two philosophers themselves, making Hamlet's conundrum seem trivial. Luther in particular is encouraged by his colleague to explore and articulate his beef with the church's excesses, particularly the practice of selling indulgences. And Faustus, who prides himself on believing in nothing, has his own drama brewing -- a romance with an ex-nun turned courtesan (the delightfully bawdy Elizabeth Carter, who plays several roles). Add in some loose talk about Copernicus' wild new theory about the Earth revolving around the sun, and there's something fraught in the Electorate of Saxony.
Maggie Yule's handsome costumes and Eric E. Sinkkonen's church-door set give the play a whiff of period authenticity, although always with a wink: I was delighted to note that at least one of the many notices pinned to the door has pull-off tabs at the bottom.
Davalos' play is packed with clever dialogue laced with snippets of lines from Shakespeare (especially from Hamlet) and the Bible, twisted around into another context. The references fly so freely and frequently that when Luther asks Faustus what exactly he's rebelling against, you know exactly what his response is going to be: "What have you got?" It's that kind of play. The real meat is in the philosophical debates between the two thinkers, which are often thought-provoking and also repetitive, as Luther keeps saying to trust in God and Faustus to trust nothing and question everything. The devilish debater always seems to get the upper hand and the last word, but it's hard to mind much because he's so fun to watch. Ultimately, more than anyone, he's the soul of the play.
Some of the best scenes are also the silliest, such as a tennis match between a cocky, trash-talking Hamlet and an increasingly aggravated and unseen Laertes (voiced by Daniel Petzold, currently performing in Shotgun Players' Coast of Utopia trilogy). A juxtaposition between a raunchy sex scene and a serene sermon is particularly hilarious.
As a prequel to the most famous events in the lives of these three figures, Wittenberg doesn't shed much light on how the two notables of Elizabethan drama got to the state they're in when we first encounter them in their respective tragedies, but it does create a somewhat amusing alternate history for how Luther came to spark the Protestant Reformation. The show's a little longer than it needs to be at two hours and 20 minutes, but it's so darn clever and charming that it hardly outstays its welcome. And it's packed with wry references that you don't have to be a huge drama or history nerd to appreciate, though it helps.
Wittenberg runs through May 4, 2014 at Aurora Theatre in Berkeley. For tickets and information visit auroratheatre.org.
All photos by David Allen.