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Playhouse Cellar Theatre/'Wittenberg'

A prince goes to college

November 4 2013

A playwright's use of literary mash-ups, plucking fictional or real characters from disparate venues and putting them together in imaginary situations, is an increasingly popular – if not always successful – device.

For his play, “Wittenberg,” former San Antonian David Davalos placed two literary figures (Hamlet and John Faustus) alongside a historical one (Martin Luther) on the campus of Wittenberg University and fantasized that their philosophies and ideas might have intersected to help shape their destinies. All three are said to have been on that campus at some time: Christopher Marlowe's Dr. Faustus taught philosophy and the Bard noted Hamlet's unfinished studies there.

The comedy has been produced some 19 times since its 2008 premiere in Philadelphia, but it has not been mounted in San Antonio until now, courtesy of the Playhouse Cellar. Directed by Bill Gundry, it is a spirited production of a carefully researched, somewhat flawed but generally well-written script.

Set in 1517, the play takes place shortly before Luther's 95 Theses (opposing Catholic indulgences) were posted on the Schlosskirche door in Wittenberg, essentially launching the Protestant Reformation. Hamlet (Sam Mandelbaum) is a gifted, indecisive student being taught and mentored by professors Faustus (Mr. Davalos) and Luther (Andrew Thornton).

This Faustus is extroverted and outspoken, a physician and teacher on weekdays and a singer in a local tavern on weekends. Atheistic and anti-establishment, he and the pious but Church dogma-frustrated Luther are close friends who repeatedly engage in loud, heated ideo-philosophical arguments. More fuel is added when they are confronted with the faith-shaking discovery by astronomer Copernicus that the Earth is not the center of the universe, but rotates around the sun.

All this, especially with Hamlet speaking in more Shakespearean-styled verse than his teachers, serves to frame what becomes an ideal atmosphere for puns and other wordplay based on familiar lines or phrases. Alas, that is the script's most glaring flaw, especially throughout the first act: a barrage of mostly contrived, sophomoric gags. You see them coming but there is no time to duck.
Consider, for example, that Dr. Faustus' classroom number is 2-B and he is constantly advising his young charge to question everything. Ouch. Or that Hamlet plays tennis, leaving wide open references to noise and racket, or being unstrung. On the positive side (in terms of foretelling the future), his opponent is named Laertes, who is infuriated at losing the match.

Mr. Davalos is a graduate of Churchill High School and UT Austin who now makes his home in Colorado. This is only the second time he has acted in his play, doing so with a convincing blend of impudence and good-natured wit. He does dress as a devil at one point, but – even when he faces a crisis in his love life – there is no indication of the dark, narcissistic side given him by Johann Goethe. Mr. Thornton's Luther (still a monk in this play) neatly balances his devoutness against his increasingly angry reaction to Catholic Church excesses.

Mr. Mandelbaum makes young Hamlet an amiable, trusting protege of both professors, who accepts Dr, Faustus' herbal, um, remedies for nightmares and his advice to challenge everything as readily as his spiritual mentor's insistence that God is always the answer. No wonder his ambivalence followed him back to Denmark.

The cast is rounded out by Christina Casella as the Eternal Feminine, effectively portraying a barmaid, the Madonna and a particularly money-savvy prostitute with whom Faustus is smitten.

With logical blocking and brisk scene changes, Mr. Gundry's smooth, efficient direction makes the most of the Cellar's tiny playing space. Ryan DeRoos' handsome, rustic set is equally efficient, featuring a platform behind arched wooden doors and furniture that switches easily from classroom to office to tavern.

“Wittenberg” is many things – clever, outrageous, talky, silly. It may not explore new philosophical territory, but Mr. Davalos has devised an entertaining, often quite inspired means of revisiting some historical landmarks. Just try to keep the groaning to a minimum.

Diane Windeler

“Wittenberg” runs through November 17 at the Playhouse Cellar Theater. Call (210)733-7258.