Saturday, April 12, 2014

"Wittenberg" ☼ ☼ ☼

History tells us that Martin Luther was a professor at the University of Wittenberg in 1517, the year of his famous posting of 95 theses on the door of the Catholic Church, thus beginning the Protestant Reformation. Shakespeare tells us that Hamlet was a college student at Wittenberg before he went home to Denmark to become King after the death of his father. And George Faustus, a character from Phillip Marlowe based on a man who sold his soul to the devil, is reputed to have been a doctor in Wittenberg.

So why not write a play on the assumption that Faustus, Hamlet and Luther were all at the University of Wittenberg at the same time? David Davalos has done just that, with a 2008 comedy that now has its Bay Area Premiere at Aurora Theatre in Berkeley. Luther is the professor, Hamlet is the college student and Faustus is the counter-culture guru and drug dealer for them both.

It's intriguing. Jeremy Kahn, in particular, does a magnificent turn as the young Hamlet, discovering that coffee and pot do wonders for his tennis game. Dan Hiatt is a fine Luther, constrained in his professor's role but longing to rebel against papal indulgences. 

The problem is that both Hamlet and Luther are drawn from the time period in which they lived, while  Dr. George Faustus is played by Michael Stevenson as a kind of horny new-age wisecracker from the 1960s. His shelves are stocked with medicines and exotic herbs from around the globe, ready to convince Hamlet and Luther to turn on, tune in and drop out -- that is, to follow their own good judgement rather than listen to the dictates of the church. 

It's a fascinating proposition. Faustus sounds like Ken Kesey, daring Luther and Hamlet to get on the bus. But they hadn't invented buses yet in 1517. And if you don't buy the Faustus interacting with his two sixteenth century counterparts, as we could not, you may have trouble with the entire show.

Example: should Dr. Faustus REALLY have a side-gig as a lute player in the Bunghole Tavern? Should Michael Stevenson really sing songs that sound like 1995 light rock? 

It's a shame because "Wittenberg" has many wonderful moments, notably whenever Hamlet is on stage. The simulated sex scene between Faustus and Helen, his true love (Elizabeth Carter) is very funny. There are many insider references to Hamlet, the play, that audiences in the know will enjoy. 
We love it when Helen turns out to be simultaneously sleeping with Faustus as well as the Pope. Who will she choose? "Once you've laid on Holy Sheets, it's hard to go back to sheets with holes."

Now, that's funny.

RATINGS: ☼ ☼ ☼
The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "Wittenberg" Three Stars. Jeremy Kahn is so good you can happily enjoy this show looking only at him. The minimal staging is excellent. But we hope the good owners of the Bunghole replace Dr. Faustus and find someone who might have lived in 1517.

The Aurora Theatre
2081 Addison Street, Berkeley
EXTENDED Through May 11

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