On paper, the premise for the comedy Wittenberg, now having its area premiere courtesy of Amphibian Stage Productions, sounds like it might have come from the pen of a playwright whose time between hardcore studying of Thomas Aquinas was spent with late-night marathons of South Park.
The plot: In 1517, a Wittenberg University student named Hamlet (Robert James Walsh), whose major is of course undecided, is torn between good and evil, or rather between allegiances to his philosophy and theology instructors, Dr. Faustus (Brandon J. Murphy) and Martin Luther (Jay Duffer), respectively. They have deep discussions in the classrooms or at the college hang, a bar called...wait for it...The Bunghole. That's also where Faustus, who is really the central figure of this story, performs folk/rock-styled songs with his lute.
Dude, it would take more than the digits of both hands and both feet of a polydactyl to count the number of plays that imagine historical and/or fictional characters meeting. Almost the same number of them can be written off as an interesting idea not fully realized—or as outright bad. A few of them, such as Tom Stoppard's Travesties or Steve Martin's Picasso at the Lapin Agile, turn out better.
So what happened with David Davalos, the author of Wittenberg, who had one of these concepts in mind? Whatever it was, he deserves a salute. Between the play's hysterical one-liners and the clever visual and literary/historical references, Wittenberg works because it's not just a one-off joke, it's a wondrously realized idea that offers honest-to-goodness food for thought, and ends up being wholly entertaining to boot.
It definitely does in Amphibian's stellar production, directed with verve and wit by David A. Miller.
This Hamlet exists before Shakespeare wrote his most famous play, and in Davalos' imagining, tidbits of the Danish prince we'll come to know through the Bard's words crop up, such as an encounter with a skull and his most famous line, "to be or not to be." (Faustus' classroom is 2B.) In the second act, he engages in a game of tennis, measuring his conflicting thoughts as he lobs the ball back at his unseen opponent.
Martin Luther, the only historical character here, is pious and still holds true to his biblical beliefs, even if it means doubting new astronomy theories by Copernicus (whose book about the earth revolving around the sun wouldn't have been published yet).
Faustus, a character of legend and who would have a play written about him after this story is set (Doctor Faustus, by Christopher Marlowe), is, fittingly, the instigator of the play's philosophical tennis match. And while he's certain that his beliefs (or non-beliefs) are the way to go, he has his moments of doubt. When he's not banging Helen of Troy or getting his constipated colleagues addicted to coffee, that is.
"A theology degree serves you every time you talk to God, a philosophy degree serves you every time you talk to yourself," Faustus says before rationalizing that those two actions are the same thing.
What Davalos manages in his well-wrought debate is to make sure that both sides see into the other for enough time to justify standing their original ground.
And what Miller manages from his cast is equally amazing. Jule Nelson-Duac winningly plays a host of women characters, from whore to virgin and beyond in a role brilliantly called The Eternal Feminine. Walsh imbues his Dane in pain with a thirst for questioning, a little wimpy but never too much. And Duffer gives his man of God conviction, with a sense of whimsy. Surely the guy who's about to begin the Protestant Reformation can't be all business, even in the year of his 95 Theses.
But the show belongs to the actor who plays Faustus, and Murphy doesn't disappoint. It's not all about a goading evil-doer with a love of indulgence. He's the hip professor who you know probably doesn't abide by the employee handbook, doesn't stick to the syllabus, and encourages his students to ask their own questions and reason them out before he injects his two cents. Murphy has a wry way with a punchline and an effective coffee haus singing voice, not to mention some damn fine skills with a lute.
It all looks great on Sean Urbantke's scenic design (the configuration in the Sanders Theatre is tennis court format, of course), and in costumes by Austin Rose and Chantel Jepson.
It's all enough to make you repeat a line that Hamlet exclaims in Wittenberg, a hilarious reference to Shakespeare's future plot: "I love the theater."
The play's the thing, indeed.