Apparently the place to be in the 17th century, if you were of an inquiring mind, was the university of Wittenberg. William Shakespeare put his Prince Hamlet there very specifically, while Christopher Marlowe placed Dr. Faustus there.
That also happened to be where real life theologian and rebel Martin Luther taught - all of which spoke to playwright David Davalos in a very special way as he decided he'd write a play about Faustus and Luther fighting over the heart and soul of Hamlet. The result is Wittenberg, a part tragical, part comical prequel to Hamlet which Stages Repertory Theatre is presenting starting this week.
"Each one of them wants to take him under their wing to become their prized pupil," says director Josh Morrison who's in charge of the Stages production.
And as it turns out, in this version (running just under two hours), the gloomy Danish prince haunted by the ghost of his murdered father wasn't any better at making up his mind in his earlier years while at university.
"In many respects, I reverse-engineered Hamlet's psychology from the moment in Hamlet when he's just about to stab a praying Claudius but second-guesses himself. His first instinct is Nietzschean, Faustian - take moral law into your own hands, exercise your will to power, kill him with no remorse - but he short-circuits that impulse with a conscientious objection to that violence which is Christian, Lutheran - you can't kill in cold blood a man who is praying, for a variety of reasons. I wanted to suggest that Hamlet's internal moral conflict pre-dated Hamlet, and was the result of his being the rope in a tug-o-war between his two professors (and father-figures).
Just setting the play at Wittenberg had meaning.
"To an Elizabethan audience, a reference to Wittenberg both identified a person there as Protestant and as someone immersed in an academic environment of intellectual foment and questioning - as if an American Hamlet in the '60s were identified as coming home from Berkeley or Kent State, " Davalos told us.
Luis Galindo, who plays Dr. Faustus, describes his character as" "A libertine, a free thinker not swayed by his surroundings being in a Catholic University. He likes to partake of all things. He's a man of appetites. He likes his drugs appetites and women. He's filling a void somewhere with all these things he needs to stay mobile otherwise he falls into lethargy."
Despite this, Davalos told us: "I don't think of any of the characters as villains - there's no malice propelling any of them. I think of them more as antagonists and of Faustus as perhaps an anti-hero."
Ryan Schabach plays Hamlet and Molly Searcy, plays the Virgin Mary and several other women as well to round out the four-actor cast.
Perhaps the most unexpected bit of casting is that Stages Producing Artistic Director Kenn McLaughlin makes his acting debut at Stages, playing Martin Luther. Morrison says they were going through auditions for the part of Luther, when McLaughlin suggested he read for it, and it clicked.
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"Louie is such a powerful actor in order for the play to work, I needed to have someone who goes head to head with him," says Morrison.
As for Galindo: "'To be or not to be.' There's a reason this is the most quoted like in all of literature. What makes it living? What way of being do you decide to take on. How do you navigate the world around you after you've made that choice?"
Davalos said the main thing he wants is an entertained audience."But the theater I enjoy best as an audience member - Shakespeare, Shaw, Stoppard -- also challenges and provokes me, be it emotionally or intellectually, and I hope on some level to provide that experience to my audiences as well."
Wittenberg opens Friday January 25, running through February 17 at at Stages Repertory Theatre, 3201 Allen Parkway. For ticket information call 713.527.0123 or visit the theater's website www.stagestheatre.com $21-$45.