Saturday, April 2, 2011

Hamming It Up Big Time in 'Wittenberg'

Scott Greer as Faustus, Sean McNall as Hamlet and Chris Mixon as Martin Luther in "Wittenberg." Photos by Sam Hough.


is 1517, the height of the Renaissance.

Dr. John Faustus (Scott Greer), who has not yet sold his soul to gain empirical knowledge, and the Rev. Martin Luther (Chris Mixon), whose dictates will soon establish the Protestant Reformation, are vying for the allegiance of young Prince Hamlet (Sean McNall), a student at the University of Wittenberg.

Playwright David Davalos uses William Shakespeare’s well-worn conceit about Hamlet’s indecisiveness to set up his comedy, “Wittenberg.” The Prince is on the fence. Should he follow the teachings of Dr. Faustus (reason) or those of Martin Luther (faith)?

Under the direction of J.R. Sullivan, the Pearl Theatre Company production at City Center Stage II through 17 April, makes hay of this amusing if esoteric material. The flimsy premise underpinning “Wittenberg” allows DD to cleverly reference Christopher Marlowe’s “The Tragicall History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus” along with Shakespeare’s “Hamlet" and Luther’s “The Ninety-Five Theses.”

“Wittenberg” is a play that debates religion and philosophy using historically or histrionically recognizable characters. In the comedy, DD slyly co-opts lines from its source materials. For instance, “To believe, or not to believe,” Dr. Faustus tells Hamlet. “That is the question?,” Hamlet responds.

Prince Hamlet (Sean McNall) has difficult personal choices to make in "Wittenberg."

Anachronisms abound:
Faustus sings the blues at a beer hall during Oktoberfest;
When Hamlet first enters, dressed as a 16th century nobleman and student, he is wearing earbuds;
As The Eternal Feminine, Joey Parsons plays varying females, all of them out of joint with the times. She is Helena, a former nun, and Faustus’ ladylove, dressed as a flight attendant. At the beer hall where Faustus sings, she is also a waitress. She is a dead ringer for the St. Pauli Girl.

SG has a fine voice and he straddles contemporary views and Faustus' 16th century wisdoms with ease and charm. SN throws himself bodily into a portrayal of this moody and sometimes haunted Hamlet. But since he will be king, he doesn’t really have to make a choice of his course of study. As Luther, CM has very little of the fun. For the most part he plays the straight man to SG’s comic turns.

“Wittenberg” fails to convince that the dichotomy of choice and orthodoxy, doubt and belief, are central issues in our lives or even in the lives of its central characters. After all, Luther, to Faustus’ delight, winds up questioning the dogma of the church in Rome. Faustus, on the otherhand, falls victim to the humbug expressed in the lyrics of the pop tune, “Que Sera Sera,” albeit parodied to fit the setting and circumstances of “Wittenberg.”

Faustus (Scott Greer) has a sidebar with The Eternal Feminine (Joey Parsons) in "Wittenberg."

The first act of “Wittenberg” posits paradoxes, pitting the soul against the intellect. Faustus’ mantra is “Question everything.” Luther is defined by his complete obeisance to the scriptures. In Act II, it flounders then sinks into a sea of glib, modernist facts.

Ultimately, “Wittenberg” is a shallow comedy about deep ideas.

Visit to learn more about “Wittenberg.”

Encore for Shakespeare in the Park Rep

“LAST year’s experiment in rep was a brilliant success,” The Public Theater Artistic Director Oskar Eustis announced recently, “allowing us to create an acting company of unparalleled depth and ability, and giving us two wonderful productions, “The Merchant of Venice” and “The Winter’s Tale.”

The Public continues its “experiment” this year with a repertory program for its 2011 edition of Shakespeare in the Park. “Measure for Measure” and “All’s Well That Ends Well,” two lesser known of William Shakespeare’s works, sometimes said to be his “problem plays,” since they are comedies with dark moods and subject matter. They run from 6 June to 30 July and will be staged at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park, the home of Shakespeare in the Park. While the performances are free and open to the public, tickets are required.

Daniel Sullivan helms the production of “All’s Well That Ends Well.” “Measure for Measure” will be directed by David Esbjornson.

Shakespeare in the Park returns to the Delacorte Theater this summer in repertory with “Measure for Measure” and “All’s Well That Ends Well.” Photo by Joseph Moran.

The cast for the productions includes a large number of well-known actors. Among them are Broadway veteran, two-time Tony Award-winner and inductee into the Theater Hall of Fame, John Cullum playing Escalus in “Measure for Measure” and the King of France in “All’s Well That Ends Well.” JC, who is well-known for his role on television’s “Northern Exposure, was seen recently in the Broadway production of “The Scottsboro Boys” (

Andre Holland, currently appearing in “The Whipping Man” at the Manhattan Theater Club, will play Claudio in “Measure for Measure” and take on the role of Bertram in “All’s Well That Ends Well.” (

Reg Rogers, recently Jacques Cornet's half-brother, Zeus-Marie Pinceposse, in “A Free Man of Color,” is Lucio in “Measure for Measure” and Parolles in “All’s Well That Ends Well.” (

Michael Hayden, who has appeared on Broadway in numerous plays, including “Judgment at Nuremberg,” “Festen” and musicals like “Carousel,” will play Angelo in “Measure for Measure” and the Second Brother Dumaine in “All’s Well That Ends Well.”

A veteran of The Public Theater, as well as Broadway (“Caroline or Change,” “Radio Golf,” “Merrily We Roll Along” to name a few), Tonya Pinkins will appear as Mistress Overdone in “Measure for Measure” and the Countess in “All’s Well That Ends Well.”

Anne Parisse, who has first-rate credits for performances in, among others, “Clybourne Park,” “Becky Shaw” and “The Credeaux Canvas,” will be Mariana in “Measure for Measure” and Helena in “All’s Well That Ends Well.”

Visit to learn about Shakespeare in the Park. By Tamara Beck

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