Wittenberg, Pacific Theatre’s latest offering, was a surprisingly educational (and entertaining) way to spend Halloween. David Davolos`s play takes us somewhere where Hamlet, Dr. Faustus, Martin Luther roam the same halls, pondering life`s questions, drinking away sorrows, and engaging in heated debate — Wittenberg University. Shakespeare’s Hamlet takes place soon after he returns from Wittenberg where he studied, — Davalos’s play weaves a tale set in the semester before he returns. In this play, however, Hamlet’s struggles are not entirely at the forefront. What takes centre stage are the strong and opposing religious views of the Dr Faustus and Martin Luther — or rather’s Faustus’s a-religious views and Luther’s strong devotion to the Bible and its tenets. These two historical & fictitious figures spark a dynamic dialectic that is the strong pulse at the heart of the play.
Faustus and Luther also have an friendship that is endearing to watch. Though their rigourous debates often descend into amusing name-calling matches, they also have a deep respect for one another, and each clearly enjoy being challenged by the other — perhaps as much as they enjoy being drinking buddies at the Bunghole. The play is set also around the time Copernicus was making his discoveries about the Earth’s rotating around the Sun, and this radical, world-changing idea makes its way into the play as a destabilizing discovery that delights Faustus and seems to disorient and frighten others. The way Davalos ties Copernicus’s discovery into the play really gives the audience an idea of the anxiety and fear evoked by the Earth’s movement at the time. I found that a very educational experience, since as a modern student I always found it hard to imagine how and why the Copernican revolution angered the Church and destabilized faiths so strongly.
The subject matter sounds serious, and it is, but the play is not without its lighter moments. Anyone who ever wanted to see Hamlet running around in sweatpants, attending office hours, fretting over tennis matches and all this while holding a number 2 pencil in his mouth will not be disappointed. Also, Dr Faustus makes a seriously charismatic professor. You gotta love a Professor that prescribes medicinal cures for existential distress and even makes time to perform a weekly gig at the Bunghole. I was also happy to see the devil make an appearance. Who’da thought he could sing like an angel?
Kudos to Anthony F. Ingram (Faustus), Marcus Youssef (Martin Luther), Mack Gordon (Hamlet) and Shauna Johannesen (The Eternal Feminine) for their great performances. Big thanks to writer David Davalos and director Stephen Drover for an entertaining, thought-provoking show.