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The Old College Wry

A man talking sense to himself is no madder than a man talking nonsense not to himself in this fiendishly entertaining work

Seth Reichgott (left) listens carefully to Michael Stebbins.

By Geoffrey Himes | Posted 9/2/2009

Wittenberg

By David Davalos

Through Sept. 13 at Rep Stage

We know from historians that Martin Luther taught theology at Germany's Wittenberg University in the early 16th century. That's the same school that Prince Hamlet attended, according to Shakespeare, and the same school where Doctor John Faustus taught, according to Shakespeare's colleague, Christopher Marlowe. And modern playwright David Davalos puts this one historical character and these two fictional characters on the same campus at the same time in Wittenberg.

Davalos doesn't mention two other famous Wittenberg students, but that's because he doesn't want to call attention to the obvious similarities between his play and Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. Like Stoppard, Davalos liberally and imaginatively borrows lines from Hamlet and pursues clever games based on 16th-century philosophy. Derivative? Yes. Vastly entertaining? Yes, yes, yes.

Davalos' own variation on Hamlet's Wittenberg connections succeeds because he shares Stoppard's sparkling command of language and witty intellectual invention--though he also has more than a little of Stoppard's glibness. In Wittenberg, Hamlet (Michael Feldsher) returns to the campus from Poland, where he has spent the summer studying astronomy with Nicolaus Copernicus. As a college senior, the young prince has to declare his major, but he can't decide whether it should be philosophy, as taught by the free-thinking, irreverent libertine Faustus (Seth Reichgott), or theology, as taught by the devout, dour ascetic Luther (Michael Stebbins). The student has to decide if the Bible is the final answer or just a collection of interesting questions.

The deck appears stacked in favor of Faustus, who gets most of the play's funniest lines. It's further stacked by Reichgott's terrific performance. Wearing a four-cornered, black-velvet cap and a pointy salt-and-pepper beard, the contagiously confident Reichgott prowls the stage as if he were the 16th-century Chris Rock, hurling wicked insults at every tired convention of his day. The actor puts body English on every wisecrack and makes it zing. Why study theology? he asks Hamlet. It's only useful when you're talking to God, while you can use philosophy whenever you're talking to yourself. And, Faustus impishly adds, that's the same as talking to God.

Stebbins is nearly as good as Luther, but the actor's comic approach emphasizes the theologian's doubts rather than his confidence. Luther is so troubled by the Catholic Church's sale of indulgences, sheets of paper that promise time off in Purgatory after death, that he is considering a public attack on the practice. At the same time, he's reluctant to criticize the institution he loves. He's so conflicted that he hasn't had a bowel movement in six days, and one look at Stebbins' reddened, grimacing face beneath his bangs offers a whole new understanding of the most famous constipation in history.

For all their differences, however, Faustus and Luther are good friends--like Ted Kennedy and Orrin Hatch. They love nothing more than to meet up at the local tavern, the Bunghole, over pewter steins of beer and trade arguments and insults. Faustus even gives his pal some African drugs that unclog his colon and his writer's block at the same time. Luther writes his 95 Theses and turns them over for a first reading to his star pupil Hamlet.

The prince, who was also the first reader of Copernicus' On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres, finds his whole world falling apart. If you can't believe in the honesty of the Church or the centrality of Earth, what can you believe in? The stability of your family? Feldsher's Hamlet is plagued by recurring nightmares, an earnest young man who is no better at making decisions on campus than he will be later on at his castle.

The final member of the cast, the spirited Emily Clare Zempel, plays all the female fantasies of these three men: the lusty waitress, the cunning courtesan, and the Blessed Virgin Mary. When Luther reads from the Song of Songs in church, the silhouettes of Zempel and Reichgott behind a curtain act out a very bawdy interpretation of the text. This is just one of the deft touches that director Tony Tsendeas brings to the production--there's also a slow-motion tennis match between Hamlet and Laertes and Faustus' ukulele-backed singing at the local coffeehouse.

Wittenberg proves every bit as amusing as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, but Davalos' play lacks gravitas. It never convinces us that much is at stake in its philosophical jokes and games, and is missing the undertow of dread that lends weight to Stoppard's best-known work. There's no shame in that. Stoppard himself has had trouble matching his early achievement.

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