Sigmund Freud, Martin Luther King Jr., Christopher Hitchens, Kierkegaard, Pope Francis and Hitler. Where would one look to find this group all in one spot? And no, it’s not the cover of the Sgt. Pepper's album. The answer is Chris Cragin-Day and Max McLean’s Martin Luther on Trial, a Fellowship for Performing Arts touring production on stage here in Houston at A.D. Players.
The rag tag bunch has been brought together to serve as witnesses in the afterlife re trial of religious reformer Martin Luther. Cute construct, right? Put a bunch of famous and infamous people in a courtroom and debate the worthiness of the most important yet flawed figure in the Protestant faith. Throw in the Devil as prosecutor, Martin Luther’s wife as defense and have the whole thing presided over by none other than St. Peter himself.
It could be the spark for a muscular discussion of the value of faith and sin, a meaty exploration of the limits of redemption or even a challenging look at the complexities of Luther himself. But that’s not what this show aims to do. This is not Stephen Adly Guirgis’ The Last Days of Judas Iscariot, a decidedly provocative religious courtroom drama recently on stage in Houston. This is altogether a different kind of theatrical animal.
Produced by a company whose mission is to “Create theatre from a Christian worldview”, what we get is a play that treads lightly over controversy, throws in some comedy to entertain us, gives us a nice glossing over of history and in the end serves mainly to reaffirm a faith-based message.
Viewed from this mandate, Martin Luther on Trial succeeds just fine with its well attuned performances and peppy pace. Just don’t think too hard about the issues being addressed or some of the narrative shortcomings of the script itself.
Unhappy with God’s afterlife embrace of Luther (played with impressive passion by Christian Conn), The Devil (Cameron Folmar) has won the right to retry Luther for the unpardonable sin of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. The Augustinian monk, the Devil contends, was called by God to do his work and instead rejected that calling when he nailed his 95 Theses to a church door and launched the Reformation. After all, wasn’t Lucifer himself cast out of heaven when he too rebelled against God and tried to change things? Why then should Luther get a pass?
Played out in a dark and smoky courtroom outfitted with gothic doors to the great beyond (set design by Kelly James Tighe) and bathed in overly literal lighting (Geoffrey D. Fishburn using red for the Devil, heavenly white for the good guys etc.), witnesses are brought in and out to speak for or against Luther’s actions.
Skit-like in their form, these testimonies are unquestionably enjoyable in their impressions of well-known figures. But without fail, these characters are narratively employed for the same goal.
Hitler (Mark Boyett) rebukes Luther’s well known anti-Semitic views as merely religious piety. Luther didn’t like the Jews because they wouldn’t convert to Christianity, says the atheist Führer. Not because scientifically they were the lesser race. Martin Luther King Jr. (Jamil A.C Mangan) praises Luther’s fighting for the common people and excuses his calls for violence against Catholics and Jews as simply the despair that all great leaders eventually face. Freud (Boyett again) suggests Luther’s vengeful and violent writings about the Jews and the Papists could be the result of a late-in-life psychological disorder. Pope Francis (yup, Boyett again) declares that Luther didn’t heretically abandon the Church, but rather the Church abandoned Luther.
No matter who questions the witnesses, The Devil or Luther’s wife, Katie Von Bora (Kersti Bryan), the result is the same. Luther’s bad behavior, whether against the Jews, his fellow Christians or even God himself, is brushed off as excusable given his utmost faith. We are all beggars before God, go Luther’s dying words, and this is a script bent on making sure that legacy is preserved.
Interspersed with the ultimately limp courtroom drama that lacks tension because of the absence of opposing views are montages of Luther’s life. We see him go from Monk to teacher, obsess over scripture, try to woo the Jews into his way of thinking, meet and marry his wife and grow angrier as the Reformation takes hold and he is torn in several directions trying to keep it afloat. While these scenes also have the whiff of mandate rather than drama, Conn’s excellent performance as Luther ensures that we remain engaged for the ride.
There’s no question we all know how things will end. This is not a production that wants to dip a toe into unresolved plot or religiously divisive waters. We know Luther will be once again allowed to live in Heaven and we can all breathe a sigh of relief that his failings weren’t really that bad. But did Cragin-Day and McLean need to make the final blow, where the Devil just suddenly gives up, packs his things and leaves, so deflated? If this is the Devil we are supposed to fear, perhaps we’ve been shaking in our boots all this time for nothing.
Martin Luther on Trial continues through October 29 at Jeannette & L.M. George Theater, 5420 Westheimer. For tickets, call 713-526-2721 or visit fpatheatre.com. $20 to $70.
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