“I thought thinking would lead me to the truth in the end, but it’s only led me to the truth that there is no end to the thinking.”
Under the direction of Theatre Chair Tom Mardikes, the two undergraduate casts delivered two unique yet uniform performances of “Wittenberg” by David Davalos.
The story takes place in October 1517 in northern Germany. It’s the beginning of another semester at the University of Wittenberg, where Martin Luther and John Faustus are both professors. Their favorite scholar? Hamlet, Prince of Denmark – who is to graduate come year’s end but has yet to declare a major.
The play’s narrative is poetic, satirical and philosophical genius. Davalos depicts a prequel to each character’s major dilemma which takes place in their own play – Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” John Osborne’s “Luther” and Marlowe’s “Doctor Faustus.”
Luther struggles with the conflicting teachings of other priests, the Church and the Word of God which leads him to write the 95 Theses. Hamlet fights between what he is supposed to become and who he actually wants to be which leads to nightmares – highlighting Shakespeare’s Hamlet’s long for the silence in death. Faustus, on the other hand, craves and relishes in the physical and internal struggle of all conflicting ideas which leads him to an unfortunate conclusion – what will be, will be.
Davalos cleverly illustrates the presence of the “Eternal Feminine” – a bar wench, a fallen nun, the Mother Mary, a Lady Voltemand. These characters, all played by the same woman, suggest that a woman can be whoever she wants, hold whatever title she wants and choose whichever path she desires, no matter what story she finds herself in. Or, perhaps it has something to do with women having a surreptitious effect on a man’s mind…that’s up to interpretation.
The most amusing element of the play is the use of satire in the dialogue. Nearly every scene has some sort of vaudevillian bantering match. Each character parodies themselves – as Davalos wrote them to. Hamlet cannot describe any event without talking on and on about it in unnecessary detail. Luther drinks and swears and dresses as a Dominican for Halloween. Faustus plays devil’s advocate to absolutely everything.
From the musical stylings of a “little light lute” to a sermon slash sex scene to Hamlet getting high, the play is an enchanting cornucopia of philosophy, religion, science, life, death and the theatre favorites who have questioned all of these.
Now, as exemplified above, “Wittenberg” was brilliantly written. Nevertheless, it takes the work of a strong cast of performers to bring any play to life. UMKC’s production had two. Both ensembles performed their characters with the same truth – each Hamlet, Faust, Luther and Eternal Feminine had the same end goal as the other. However, each ensemble also possessed a sundry sense of stakes and comedic timing unique to only their performance.
Scott Fagan as Doctor Faustus: Fagan was the epitome of Marlowe’s Faust – the charm, the unwavering confidence, the insatiable desire for answers. Fagan gave the philosophy of it all a certain ease. He refuted, rebutted and revered religion, the meaning of life and science with clarity and conviction. Fagan definitely held command of the stage – and the audience.
Malcolm Gibbs as Martin Luther: Gibbs highlighted the naivety of a younger Luther. Gibbs’ frustrated and apprehensive energy played well against Fagan’s wiseacre persona. The two had an amusing older brother versus little brother dynamic.
Alex Ritchie as Hamlet: Ritchie is an inescapable shoe-in for Hamlet. Be on the lookout. In 10 years, he is going to make some theatre very famous as its Prince of Denmark. He carried himself effortlessly. For lack of a more worthy description, he was Hamlet – a smart, charming young man burdened by fate with glorious purpose.
Tara Williams as the Eternal Feminine: Williams gave the stage new light in each scene she was in. She was flamboyant, empathetic and dauntless. She soared as Mother Mary – really, she was hooked to the fly system.
Peter Morgan as Doctor Faustus: Morgan’s Faust had a ruthless, devil-may-care attitude – all for the sake of love and science. His Faust had not yet been conquered by the uncertainties of the world. Morgan spouted heightened philosophy as though he was telling the audience about his favorite movie.
He brought Faust down to a human level where most do not think to portray him. Morgan’s performance was riveting and refreshing.
Steven Miles as Martin Luther: Miles transcended the role of Martin Luther. Future Luther’s should turn to Miles for tips. His comedic timing was unparalleled, and he brought out the finest moments in his fellow actors. During Luther’s monologue about why he believes in the Word of God, Miles gushed with transparency and humility – it was the truest moment of the entire show. The way he said “marble kisses” changed the temperature of the room. Brava, Mr. Miles.
Ray Rugga as Hamlet: Rugga, much like Morgan, delivered a fresh, carefree performance of the all too damned prince. Rugga played Hamlet for who he was at the time of the play – an undecided college student. He had an infectious innocence which made for a nice contrast from his cast mates.
Sunny Flowers as the Eternal Feminine: Flowers drove home the idea that the Eternal Feminine was the woman who can pursue whichever life she pleases. She boisterously and graciously held her own against her male counterparts. The clarity of her performance reflected composure beyond her years.