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