“Save your soul, John!” says Martin Luther to Dr. Faustus. “Free your mind, Martin!” retorts the doctor. Two famous men—one historical, one literary—with drastically different worldviews squabbling from positions so far apart on the intellectual spectrum that they will never find common ground resort to spouting their respective doctrines in the simplest terms. But of course you don’t need me to explain the irony: its heavy-handedness is clear enough from the language.
David Davalos’s 2008 play “Wittenberg,” now running at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, is full of this sort of broad-stroke exploration of moral and philosophical antimonies, while regularly and less-than-subtly invoking a litany of culture buzz names from Aristotle to the Beatles. The play seems designed as an examination of philosophical grey area, but it devolves instead into an uncritical display of some precepts of intellectual history, smugly congratulating itself on its fluency with Western thought. Although the performances of the small cast are as stellar as we should expect from this theater, “Wittenberg,” having put all its eggs into the basket of derivative cultural allusions, falls flat.
If Faustus and Luther serve as “Wittenberg’”s philosophical poles, then Hamlet enters as its vacillating middle ground. For, who better to serve as a vehicle for the examination of intellectual gray area than Hamlet, the complexity of whom is so often explained away as the process of deep thought? Davalos seems to bank on this characterization as much as he does his audience’s familiarity with Shakespeare’s play about the Danish prince. “Hamlet” allusions pepper “Wittenberg” almost constantly, each eliciting knowing chuckles from the audience.
The play is something of a prequel to both “Hamlet” and Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus. Overtly anachronistic (Faustus wears modern headphones and plays pop songs on the guitar, but also marvels in his recent discovery of an exotic delicacy called coffee), it opens on the first day of the fall semester at Wittenberg University (yes, that is where Shakespeare’s Hamlet went to college: the play’s title is only the first of its innumerable and tiresome references to “Hamlet”). Dr. Faustus (Anthony Marble) is the school’s philosophy professor, while Martin Luther (Mark H. Dold) its resident theologian, both of whom vie for the mentorship of their star Danish pupil. Returning for his senior year, Hamlet has yet to declare a major and—as we might suspect—struggles to decide on a course of study.
The play seems to want to be about Hamlet, but its primary focus is Faustus, a free thinking radical who plays guitar at a local bar, experiments with hallucinogenic drugs, and has little patience for Luther’s religious conviction. Marble’s performance is spot-on in this role, as is Dold’s as the devout and fastidious Luther. Both are fairly flat characters (until perhaps moments before the conclusion), but both actors make the absolute most of what the script gives them. Erin Partin also shines in the play’s female roles. Her character is billed as The Eternal Feminine, allowing “Wittenberg” to traffic fully and simply in the Madonna-whore dichotomy that so vexes Shakespeare’s Hamlet, but Partin succeeds dutifully in her varied roles. Jordan Coughtry’s Hamlet recalls his recent performance as George Gibbs in this theater’s “Our Town”—wide-eyed, naïve, and often baffled by the complexity of life—an echo that should underscore Davalos’s reductive treatment of Shakespeare’s Dane.
We learn that Hamlet has spent the summer in Poland studying with Copernicus, and has brought back a copy of his treatise arguing that the earth revolves around the sun. These ideas invigorate Faustus, infuriate Luther, and in a strained way initiate the play’s central conflict.
Ultimately, though, Davalos seems less concerned with lofty philosophical questions than with deploying cultural references, making “Wittenberg” something of an interactive matching game. One wonders if the audience should be given score cards to track their recognition of the many allusions. On Thursday, as the Virgin Mary implored Hamlet to “remember me” while creeping into the shadows after appearing to the prince during a crisis of faith, a woman behind me whispered to her companion, “The ghost in ‘Hamlet.’” Yes: full credit. Much of the play seems designed to call forth and quaintly reward its audience’s fluency with Shakespeare—Hamlet reads The Murder of Gonzago; his word association game calls Denmark a prison and woman frailty; the disembodied voice officiating the tennis match between the prince and Laertes judges a shot as “An out! A very palpable out!”; other references abound—but the evocations of Shakespeare are inserted at the cost of “Wittenberg”’s own cogency.