by David Davalos
Amphibian Stage Productions
Directed by David A. Miller
Production Stage Manager: Jordan Kelly Andrews
Scenic Designer: Sean Urbantke
Costume Designers: Austin Rose and Chantel Jepson
Lighting Designer: Aaron Lentz
Sound Designer: David Lanza
Technical Director: Jennye James
Costume Mistress: Susan Austin
Production Interns: Shelby Bennett, Zoquera Milburn
Set Crew: Theresa Towery
Faustus ? Brandon J. Murphy
Hamlet ? Robert James Walsh
Luther ? Jay Duffer
The Eternal Feminine ? Jule Nelson-Duac
Reviewed Performance 7/7/2011
Reviewed by Bonnie K. Daman, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
To believe or not to believe? Wittenberg asked, "What if?" What if at a specific point in time two giants of history were thrown into the same room together? One represented reason and science, the other embodied faith and religion. Whose argument would win? Would they act as congenial scholarly men? Then in the center of the argument, what if one impressionable young man whose decisions would influence a kingdom was placed between them? Would philosophy influence religion or would faith succeed in converting the unbelieving?
Playwright David Davalos opened Pandora's Box when he decided to ask those two simple words and thus created his original play Wittenberg. Inspired by what he called the "imaginary meetings between historical figures", Davalos thread the fictional and nonfictional stories of three influential men - Reverend Doctor Martin Luther, Doctor John Faustus and Hamlet, Prince of Denmark - with one common entity: Wittenberg University.
Luther first put the college on the map in the 1500's. The German monk was famous for translating the Bible into German and was known for his 95 Theses that influenced the start of the Protestant Reformation.
Doctor John Faustus, based off of Christopher Marlowe's story of the same name, counteracted Luther's religious representation and supported a philosophical and scientific point of view. As a staff member at Wittenberg, Faustus' lust for ultimate knowledge led him to make a pact with the devil to satisfy that desire. Torn between the two scholars was Hamlet, Prince of Denmark of Shakespearean lore. Shakespeare referred to Hamlet having studied at Wittenberg for a time and that is where Davalos' weaving of tales began to take form.
I could have gone on for quite some time about the Wittenberg script. It was witty and ingeniously interlaced with references to the background stories of each of its three lead characters. It may have been beneficial to have some general knowledge of their histories in order to join in on the hilarity. I admit that some parts felt like an inside joke because I had never read Doctor Faustus or I had forgotten the history on Martin Luther. Whether well read or not there was something for everyone and I laughed a lot more than I had imagined. Not only was it comical but Davalos' script was packed with several powerful monologues that were the heart and soul of the play.
Amphibian Stage Productions opened their production this past Thursday to a packed house. Among the distinguished guests was playwright David Davalos himself, having flown in for the event, so the excitement was high and expectations immense. A two-sided stage, audience members sat on either side of the set consisting of two opposing platforms built to represent the offices of Luther and Faustus. The contrasts between sides was immediately obvious; two separate worlds that could stand alone but were still respective of each other as being part of Wittenberg University. Faustus' office was the more eccentric of the two with endless gadgets and tonics scattered about; from the mini abacus to the exploratory maps and globes. While the majority of the performance was staged on this portion of the set the opposite end clearly represented Luther's more simplistic lifestyle - nothing more than books, a cross hung from the ceiling, and a small desk.
Aaron Lentz's lighting design was strategically implemented into the set. I especially liked the lanterns used for the overhead lighting in the theatre which gave an old world feel to the room.
The sound design created by David Lanza completed the package and sold me on the illusion that I was glimpsing a part of Wittenberg. His use of background noise to enhance the opening or closing of a scene was gradual and not overbearing to the actors as they delivered their lines. Lanza's timing was impeccable with the use of prerecorded material and not once was the flow of the show disrupted due to the added technical aspects.
Luckily for the costuming department the two main characters of Luther and Faustus didn't require much change throughout the show. Rather, a simple vest or cloak added or taken off was as versatile as the costuming needed to be for these two characters. On the other hand Hamlet's costume was a distraction for me. I didn't know much about the clothing for that era but I couldn't help but see Hamlet as Robin the Boy Wonder. Perhaps it was a combination of the actor's boyish facial expressions and the flesh colored tights and boots.
The caliber of talent recruited for this production was such that a director would probably give his or her right hand to work with them. This small group of actors was so tightly knit and in tune with each other's performances you would have thought this was closing weekend instead of opening night. Director David A. Miller's interpretation of the script seeped into each actor's individual interpretation of their characters. It was like watching a relay race - each speech or scene fed into the next as they all worked together to create this masterpiece of a play in front of me.
I was most impressed by how unprejudiced the show turned out to be. The lack of a spiritual or philosophical agenda was a rare find. Davalos' script only posed the questions about reason versus faith, not trying to force the answers. So my and my guest's take away was the impression that, religious or not, they were all searching and seeking and learning. Miller was able to present the play in the same way as a presentation of both arguments without trying to sway the audience. On a deeper level, the actors themselves played their roles with conviction and gave some of the most honest performances I have seen this year.
Brandon J. Murphy opened the show with gusto and confidence as the philosophical and ornery Doctor John Faustus. His quick-paced and loaded dialogue was as natural as breathing and it was amusing to watch his character delight in his own sinful nature, and parade it in front of Luther. Although neither of the characters were the true antagonists of the show Murphy was a success in provoking his counterpart and expressing the humor of most situations.
As Act II came to a close it was then that I finally saw the underlying motivation of this character which was simply to belong. Murphy was an open book for this final scene as he portrayed a defeated man who had played the devil's advocate (no pun intended) for too long and finally realized he may always have to do so alone.
Opposite Murphy was Jay Duffer in the role of Martin Luther. Instead of portraying the German monk as pious and unwavering, Duffer was genuine and humble and unafraid to show Luther's weaknesses. He exposed Luther's humanity with all these frustrations and lusts of the flesh. Duffer was also impeccable in his delivery. He was straight-laced with a quirky but dry sense of humor and received the biggest laugh from me with the use of one expletive in the second act. Because Luther was the least fictional of the characters it was interesting to see the play take some liberties with a few historical facts ? another "What If?" scenario ? and Duffer executed those liberties with ease.
Robert James Walsh as Hamlet seemed to take the first couple of scenes to warm up to his character but he hit his stride and became a nice buffer between the two scholars. Walsh acted the part of the impressionable young student who was sucked into a tug-of-war between reason and faith. What distinguished his character was how Davalos wrote nearly all of Hamlet's dialogue in Shakespearean prose. The contrast was odd at first but Walsh sold the performance which only enhanced the believability of the meeting of these characters. Walsh also played the best one-sided game of tennis that I've ever seen, and of all the "inside jokes" laced throughout the show, Hamlet's was by far the most recognizable.
Rounding out the cast was Jule Nelson-Duac as The Eternal Feminine. Davalos gave no explanation for the title of her role but after three or four character and costume changes it was evident. Nelson-Duac played several instrumental roles which either instigated or assisted in bringing about a change for the male characters. Her relationship with Faustus was the more prevalent and she gave a short but commanding performance opposite Murphy.
Wittenberg runs through July 24th at The Hardy and Betty Sanders Theater in Fort Worth.
Amphibian Stage Productions
Fort Worth Community Arts Center, The Sanders Theater
1300 Gendy Street,Fort Worth, TX 76107
Runs through July 24th
Thursdays through Saturdays at 8:00 pm and Sundays at 2:00 pm
Tickets are $25.00 for adults, $20.00 for seniors, and $15.00 for students
Visit www.amphibianproductions.org for tickets or call the box office at 817.923.3012.