A priest, a doctor, and the Prince of Denmark walk into a bar. It sounds like the set up to a cornball joke, but the punchlines are anything but stale in David Davalos’s smart comedy Wittenberg, produced by The Pearl Theatre Company at New York City Center Stage II. The action is set at Wittenberg University at the beginning of fall semester in the year 1517. A troubled Hamlet has just returned from a particularly challenging semester abroad for the start of his senior year, and as is typical for the Danish Prince, can’t decide on a course, let alone a major. He looks for guidance from his two equally respected but polar-opposite mentors: the conservative priest Martin Luther and the radical, free-thinking lecturer Dr. Faustus. The priest and the doctor are soon engaged in their own brilliant, often hilarious battle of religion versus science, with Martin Luther trumpeting “Save your soul,” Dr. Faustus bellowing “Free your mind,” and Hamlet left as confused as ever.
The plot takes so many delightful turns that it’s difficult to write about without giving too much away, but suffice to say that anyone with a passing knowledge of Shakespeare’s play about the melancholy Dane will find the word play fascinating. A word association game becomes a “best of” Hamlet’s most famous speeches, and the playwright skewers the “to be or not to be” line in so many creative ways I lost count at the fifth riff. But it’s not all about Hamlet—he’s the tortured heart to Dr. Faustus’s liberated mind and Martin Luther’s pious soul. The two older men do a lot of the heavy lifting, debating big ideas such as free will, faith, and man’s place in the universe while downing pints and bantering like highly educated vaudevillians. The play’s tone quickly shifts from cerebral to scatological then back again, sneaking moments of revelation in between what can be appropriately described as college humor.
Director J. R. Sullivan has just the right touch to handle this complex farce. He presents the intellectual themes clearly and with passion, touching the highbrow while still indulging the bawdy humor of the script and using anachronism to bring the historical into the present. His decision to have the actors interact directly with the audience elevates scenes that might have come across as static lectures into truly engaging theatrical moments, whether it be having Hamlet take a seat in the house during his classes or (as I witnessed on the night I was there) allowing room for clever improv at Dr. Faustus’s open mic night. The simple set lets the director create everything from a beer hall to a nail-biting tennis match, one of the most impressive uses of space I’ve seen in awhile.
But the key element of this production is the exciting chemistry coaxed from each of the male actors. Palpable sparks fly between Chris Mixon as Martin Luther and Scott Greer, an excellent Dr. Faustus. Mixon brings a subtle gentleness to Martin Luther that balances out the priest’s strict moral code and gives us a glimpse into his humanity. The role of Dr. Faustus is Greer’s New York debut, and in it he achieves an earthy performance full of passion and nuance that could not easily be replicated. Together, they convey a genuine friendship and concern for their star pupil, Hamlet, played with dexterity by Sean McNall. As in Shakespeare’s play, this is a difficult role which McNall navigates with the help of an excellent voice, physical strength, and clear insight into the character. Joey Parsons plays multiple roles as the Eternal Feminine, a sort of parade of female stereotypes ranging from the literal Virgin Mary to a whore by way of the St. Pauli Girl, most often to comedic effect. The only time we get to see past the cliché is toward the end of the play, when she portrays a messenger sent to Hamlet from his mother. In this scene, Parsons’s performance is poignant.
The production team does an excellent job of reinforcing the idea that while the play is historical, the ideas debated are timeless. The set design by Jo Winiarski utilizes rich wood paneling, cleverly revolving archways, and a large door that is at once reminiscent of the doors on which Luther would eventually post his famous 95 Theses and still would not look out of place on a modern campus. As the saying goes, Dr. Faustus’s devil is in the details, and the attention to detail on this set is impressive, from the fluorescent colored flyers tacked to the doors at the start of the play to the various prescription bottles lining Dr. Faustus’s shelves. The men’s costumes, designed by Liz Covey, also strike an interesting balance between past and present by being basically period but having hints of the contemporary that are so well integrated they’re practically seamless. Pieces worn by The Eternal Feminine intentionally read as costumes in comparison to the men, becoming an intelligent comment on the character’s function within the play. Sound designer Barry G. Funderburg covers every base from haunting medieval chants to goofy college football game fanfares that, in their polarity, serve the production well. The few voiceovers are slightly disruptive, and I wonder if another, more integrated solution to the off-stage voices could have been used. The lighting design by Stephen Petrilli creates an elegant lightscape for the actors to play against, adding some interesting textures to Hamlet’s fevered dream sequences.
This is, despite its classical overtones, not a museum piece. It is a living piece of engaging theatre brought to life by an outstanding cast led by a confident director and crafted by a playwright who has imagined a fascinating alternate reality, and quite possibly, given the fictional Hamlet a back story that will inform the role for the future.