Theatre review: Wittenberg is short on answers

Stop me if you’ve heard this one: a doctor, a priest and a prince walk into a University.  While there is no obvious punch line here, it also sums up the mix of laughs and heady philosophical musings in Pacific Theatre’s Wittenberg, a play that is itself short on answers.

Wittenberg reads like an old-fashioned parlor game where guests are asked if they could have dinner with anyone through history, who it would be.  Playwright David Davalos answers a version of that question for himself by assembling Doctor Faustus (Anthony F. Ingram), Martin Luther (Marcus Youssef) and Hamlet (Mack Gordon) at Germany’s Wittenberg University in the early 16th century.

While the first joke can come from the seemingly odd mix of both historical and fictional characters, Davalos continues to mine the spatial divide for laughs.  In Wittenberg, Faustus is a professor of philosophy and a weekly engagement as a singer at the local tavern where Que Sera Sera is his song of choice.  Martin Luther battles a case of constipation while he writes his Disputation of Martin Luther on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences (95 Theses) and not to be left out of the absurdity Hamlet attends classes, debating the idea of renouncing the throne to become a monk with both Faustus and Luther, but not before getting in a quick game of tennis with Laertes.

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

While there are some wonderful performances, especially in knowing the company was together for just 2 1/2 days before opening, the play really is the thing.  With rudimentary blocking and actors still on script, as a staged reading it is up to the text to shine, but while Davalos attempts to get inside our heads at times, he never wanders far from the next joke.

In his program notes, director Stephen Drover states that given the nature of a staged reading where actors don’t have the luxury of any deep discovery of the material, it is up to us as an audience to have those discussions .  But for us to have those deep discussions, there must be an assumption that the audience will either care enough or have sufficient knowledge in the subject matter.  Audiences may, like me, struggle on both counts without the actors, director and production team as our guides.

With staged readings becoming a regular part of Pacific Theatre’s seasons (The Last Days of Judas Iscariot also started out in this manner and went onto great things), perhaps Wittenberg’s next incarnation will spark those discussions.  I for one can’t wait to see what a full-on tennis match might look like as well.

3 Out of 5 Stars Wittenberg

By David Davalos.  Directed by Stephen Drover.  A Pacific Theatre production.  On stage at Pacific Theatre through November 10, 2012.  Visit http://www.pacifictheatre.org for tickets and information.

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