Review: Wittenberg at Pacific Theatre

Playwright David Davalos' Wittenberg is a stimulating and thought-provoking piece of theatre that plays out like a fantasy-league for philosophical minds. Reaching across history and literature, it brings together Hamlet, Martin Luther, and Doctor Faustus in a probing narrative that explores what we choose to believe in.

The action takes place prior to the events that will define the three men for contemporary audiences. The setting is Wittenberg:  the school in Germany where Hamlet is enrolled and Luther and Faustus teach.

Shakespeare's prince has recently returned from a summer study with Copernicus. The revelation that the sun does not rotate around the earth has left him philosophically and spiritually reeling. He seeks advice from the devout, dogmatic Luther and open-minded, outspoken Faustus. At the same time, Luther is conflicted by the church's selling of indulgences and also seeks out Faustus' counsel. Faustus, in turn, possesses his own retinue of inner demons and desires he must contend with.

Anthony F. Ingram, Mack Gordon, and Marcus Youssef. Photo by Emily Cooper.

This frames a show that is heavy on ideas and conversation. The richness of the dialogue is incredible, exploring immensely complex ideas in engaging, accessible ways and packing the script with a rapid fire series of literary in-jokes.

Pacific Theatre's presentation is a staged reading so there are few sets, the actors have scripts in hand, and they only enjoyed three days of rehearsal with director Stephen Drover before presenting to audiences. Despite this, the play feels realized,  with full costumes, well-integrated lighting and sound, and complex, nuanced characterizations from the performers.

As Hamlet, Mack Gordon is wide-eyed and earnest, showing us what the Dane's questioning intellect would look like, were it not tempered with the familiar, glowering ennui.

Anthony F. Ingrams' Faustus is the quintessential  irreverent, anti-establishment university professor. The character could easily come off cold and manipulative, but Ingram brings great warmth and charisma to the part.

Martin Luther is a perfect foil to Faustus; a deeply religious believer who struggles to even acknowledge the fallibility of the church. In Marcus Youssef's hands he is a repressed figure, vacilating between a stiff sense of propriety and blustery outrage.

A number of women also feature in the story, all of whom are played by Shauna Johannesen. The highlight was her turn as the object of Faustus' affection, a staggeringly self-possessed prostitute who seemed to speak in poetry.

Wittenberg is a play that is as much about ideas as story or characters. It is not a show that can be enjoyed passively, but for the audience member willing to slide to the front of the seat and fully engage their intellect, it is a stimulating, thought-provoking, and deeply rewarding experience.

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