Grabbing characters from classic literature or figures out of history to populate a new play is not an uncommon practice for playwrights of a certain bent. But a question often arises as to whether the author is borrowing gravitas rather than creating his or her own.
“Wittenberg,” the season finale from the Portland Stage Company, is a bit of a contraption. But it nonetheless carries enough of its own weight to make for an entertaining and thought-provoking night at the theater.
Author David Davalos calls his play “A Tragical-Comical-Historical in Two Acts.” It’s all that, as characters Martin Luther, John Faustus and Hamlet confront the burning questions of the year 1517 in a German university setting. Along the way, they also go for some quick laughs with humor you wouldn’t expect from such legendarily solemn fellows. Add some folk-rock songs and you’ve got something for just about everyone, at least everyone with a taste for both sophisticated dialogue and a naughty joke or two.
Luther, played by Hall Hunsinger, and Faustus, played by Michael Hammond, spend the majority of the play arguing lofty themes with each other and/or trying to convince young student Hamlet, played by Rob McFadyen, of the correct path to a good life. The discussions get rather thick, particularly in the second act of the two hour-plus play, as the protagonists debate the relative value of faith and reason. Clever allusions to source material and the introduction of some out-of-period ideas keep a certain twinkle alive, if you will, in the eye in the script. Overall, the play mixes substance and parody very well.
At Friday’s opening, Hammond was a primal force as his Faustus vigorously defends a worldview free from religious constraints. He commanded attention in nearly every scene. He also got to sing a couple of tunes which, though amusing, seemed tacked on to the body of the play.
Hunsinger was a sweet, jovial Luther who smiled perhaps a touch too often when challenged by Faustus. But he was able to convey the personal struggle of his character to “unclench,” yet stay within, his initially Rome-based faith.
McFadyen’s young Hamlet was full of a spirit not yet melancholy as he seeks to make a choice between the divergent exhortations of his professors.
Caley Milliken added sensuality in a number of roles under the generic title “The Eternal Feminine.” Whether serving steins of good German beer or making sure her Helen remains clear of the matrimonial advances of Faust, she was a welcome presence in the man’s world of the play.
Co-directing the production are Ron Botting and Merry Conway and, judging from the multiple levels of meaning and shifting dramatic modes employed within this show, two is not too many.
Steve Feeney is a freelance writer who lives in Portland.