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Wittenberg
by David Davalos
Directed by Philip Boehm
Upstream Theater
January 25, 2019

Alan Knoll, Steve Isom Photo by ProPhotoSTL.com Upstream Theater

It almost sounds like a set-up for a joke–Hamlet, Martin Luther, and Doctor Faustus walk into a classroom. What’s the punchline? Well, there’s a lot more to Upstream Theater’s latest show than punchlines. Wittenberg by David Davalos takes its intriguing premise and develops it into a compelling, funny, and thoughtful story, and Upstream has staged it with some impressive local talent.

So, this is a mash-up of sorts. It features a real-life character and two iconic fictional protagonists from theatrical history and puts them together in a way that provokes humor, yes, but also a lot of thought. The setting is Wittenberg, Germany, and the time is 1517. Hamlet (Corey Boland) is an aimless young student at the university, and he looks up to his favorite teachers, Doctor John Faustus (Steve Isom), who teaches philosophy; and Martin Luther (Alan Knoll), who teaches theology. The focus seems to be on Faustus most of the time, and his affectionate but often antagonistic relationship with Luther. They are essentially opposite influences on the impressionable Hamlet, who isn’t sure he’s ready to be king of Denmark and is still trying to figure out his purpose in life. There are no literal “deals with the devil” for Faustus here. Instead, he tries to make the most of life, reaching for experiences to validate him, such as his relationship with a woman, Helen (Caitlin Mickey, who plays several roles). The continuing philosophical and religious struggles and dilemmas of Faustus and Luther continue to play out and influence Hamlet’s and their own choices, as Luther vacillates about what to do about his theological issues with the Catholic Church, Hamlet struggles with identity, and Faustus tries to influence both of them while also trying to make sense of his own life.

It’s a fun show, with some interesting twists like having Faustus moonlight as a lute-playing lounge singer, Hamlet playing tennis with an offstage Laertes (voice of Nicholas Henke), Faustus and Luther as bickering friends, and more. All of the performers are excellent, with Isom giving the best performance I’ve seen from him as Faustus, portraying him as charming and fun-loving, but also with an underlying sense of sadness about him. Knoll is also fantastic as the sometimes strident, sometimes reticent Luther, and the scenes between him and Isom are the highlight of the production. Boland is also a delight as the eager-to-learn Hamlet, and Mickey does an excellent job in several roles, including the sophisticated Helen (described in the program as a “lady of pleasure), cheerful barmaid Gretchen, and–in an amusing vision of Hamlet’s–the Virgin Mary.

The space at the Kranzberg Arts Center is very small, but the production makes the most of that space, with a stunningly realized set by Michael Hall that portrays Faustus’s richly appointed office and desk laden with various artifacts and gadgets. The costumes by Laura Hanson are sumptuously detailed, as well, and the props by Rachel Tibbetts are excellent. There’s also striking atmospheric lighting by Steve Carmichael and sound by Philip Boehm to help maintain the mood and occasionally whimsical atmosphere of the production.

This is a play that has to be seen to be believed. It’s easy to describe in one sense, but it really has to be experienced. WIth a top-notch cast, stellar production values, and a smart, thoughtful, witty script, Wittenburg is a trip through the imagination that’s well worth taking.

Casey Boland, Steve Isom, Caitlin Mickey Photo by ProPhotoSTL.com Upstream Theater

Upstream Theater is presenting Wittenberg at the Kranzberg Arts Center until February 10, 2019

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