Martin Luther, the radical father of the Protestant reformation, taught theology at Wittenberg University, Germany's most prestigious institute of higher learning. Elizabethan playwright Christopher Marlowe placed his quasi-mythical Doctor Faustus, who sells his soul to the devil, inside the school's hallowed halls as teacher of philosophy. Shakespeare put Hamlet here as student.
In his mind-bending Wittenberg (2008), a regional premiere from Stages Repertory, contemporary playwright David Davalos puts all three of these volatile characters in Wittenberg at the same time and shakes them vigorously. He mixes a stiff drink.
His "tragical-comical-historical" play is a bracing concoction that's fiery polemic, history lesson and Monty Python revue. It's consistently entertaining. Even if you're a bit hazy on convoluted 16th-century European church dialectics, never fear, Davalos lays it all out. He takes the facts, cuts the boring parts and adds a big splash of silliness to keep our interest. However, if you're not familiar with Hamlet, you're on your own, and many of the inside jokes might pass you by. But even so, you won't miss out on the good stuff. Davalos keeps that center stage.
Through February 17. Stages Repertory Theatre, 3201 Allen Parkway. Purchase tickets online at stagestheatre.com or call 713-527-0123. $21-$48.
There's more than a whiff of Tom Stoppard in old Wittenberg. Davalos is sloppier in his references than that master of historical deconstruction (Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Coast of Utopia), settling for the easier laugh, but his premise is solid and, you've got to hand it to him, those corny allusions and anachronisms about tenure, coffee enemas and Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey can be awfully funny. Hamlet's tennis game while stoned on Faustus's Turkish delight is a comic gem. In pantaloons and sweat band, the prince is jazzed. We get a contact high just watching.
But there's substance here, too. Luther and Faustus, friends but professorial rivals for prize student Hamlet's attention, furiously debate their opposing core beliefs: faith and doubt. "Man shall live by scripture alone," intones Luther like an Old Testament prophet. "Question everything," rages Faustus. "Think for yourself!" Both are adamant and will notbe swayed. That they spar while drinking to excess at the local tavern (St.Pauli is a favorite brew) keeps the seriousness in check.
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The cast carries this serious farce with consummate ease, turning on a dime from Looney Tunes to Masterpiece Theatre. Kenn McLaughlin steps in front of Stages' footlights after seasons behind the scenes as artistic director and makes an astonishing debut as Luther. With his hair shaved in semi-tonsure, he even resembles Cranach's famous portrait. He brings solid religious fervor to the avid monk/professor. He knows his stance is right, and it wounds his pride that Faustus is so blind to his entreaties.
Luis Galindo blusters his way through libertine Faustus as if talking to someone deaf. Once you get used to the volume, he has lively conviction and a vaudevillian's timing. His best scene is with prostitute Helen (Molly Searcy as a quartet of eternal females), the love of his life. Echoing Marlowe, he finds his soul in her kiss, but she flips his argument over man's ability to choose by choosing to live without him. She goes for the gold instead. The rejection totally deflates him, opening the path for satanic temptation. "Exit my soul," he cries.
Ryan Schabach, audience-favorite "Buttons" in Stages' Christmas pantos, brings panache and puppy innocence to manic/depressive Hamlet. Wild-eyed, he listens to his teachers' arguments with an intensity that matches his troubled interior. He's a rash schoolboy — and hilarious tennis player — but something's rotten in his mind, eating him from the inside. If anyone will grow up into Shakespeare's man of inaction, it has to be Schabach. Davalos keeps him offstage for too many scenes so Luther and Faustus can debate, but when he's on he takes the light and runs with it.
In the 16th century, Wittenberg was the place to be. Today, it's Wittenberg. You get to think, laugh and groan at its bad puns. Who says education isn't fun?