Henry McGee

The premise is clever, the allusions are clever, the one-liners are clever, but there's only so much cleverness you can take. "Wittenberg" is a Ph.D. thesis run amok -- a collection of footnotes that bludgeon us for no apparent purpose other than to show off playwright David Davolos' learning, while squandering some good acting in the process.

The premise is clever, the allusions are clever, the one-liners are clever, but there’s only so much cleverness you can take. “Wittenberg” is a Ph.D. thesis run amok — a collection of footnotes that bludgeon us for no apparent purpose other than to show off playwright David Davolos’ learning, while squandering some good acting in the process.

Davalos imagines a Wittenberg U. when Hamlet (Shawn Fagan) was a student (major undecided, of course). He is the star student, and his two professors vie for influence over him: Dr. Martin Luther (Greg Wood) wants to win his soul, while Dr. John Faustus (Scott Greer) angles for his mind, each requiring that he choose, decide, commit, which is no easy thing, if you’re Hamlet. The irony is that when he finally does choose at the end he is undone by events — the message informing him of his father’s death arrives, requiring his return to Denmark — and the rest is, if not history, drama.

Maybe the point is that we are not the authors of our lives and that the big playwright in the sky is really in charge, in which case the play seems to reverse itself, since Faust is clearly the central character. But “Wittenberg” ends with Hamlet reciting “There is special providence in the fall of a sparrow,” and Luther movingly quoting himself: “I am captive to my conscience,” while Faustus, the champion of choice, sings, “Que sera, sera.”

There is a great deal of Shakespeare-speak (requiring much time spent wracking your brain — Shakespeare? Which play? Or maybe it’s Marlowe? Or Goethe?), with contemporary allusions mixed in (a little Beckett, a little Freud, a little Brando). There is an overworked device of a college watering hole where Dr. Faustus sings “Doctor, Doctor, give me the news” and the Eternal Feminine (Kate Udall) makes an appearance as a sexy barmaid. She will reappear as the Virgin Mary, as Faustus’ money-hungry mistress, etc., etc.

Greer plays Faustus as a genius of Falstaffian appetites: he counsels freedom, choice and logic, while dispensing psychiatric advice, obsessing about sex and swilling red wine. As Luther, Wood is far more subtle, quietly tormented by the treatise he’s just read by Copernicus (“soulful solarphilia”). Luther delivers several unnecessarily long sermons, reading a big chunk of the Song of Solomon while Faustus and Helen indulge in post-coital, “Oh, God’s.” There’s a lot of this kind of winking and nudging: the Bible is “one helluva book,” and some obscure Latin jokes about Being and Nothingness.

Instead of Luther’s being the passionate rebel against Papal authority and corruption, he writes the famous 95 Theses as a homework assignment, and it’s Faustus who posts the provocative document on the church door without his permission. And so the Reformation becomes a kind of intellectual prank.

All the smartypants references are fun for a while, but then it becomes clear that “Wittenberg” doesn’t actually have anything to say. The only restraint Davalos shows is that there are, mercifully, no Diet of Worms jokes.

Wittenberg

Arden Theater Company, Philadelphia; 187 seats; $45 top

Production

An Arden Theater Company presentation of a play in two acts by David Davalos. Directed by J.R. Sullivan.

Creative

Sets and lighting, Michael Philippi; costumes, Elizabeth Covey; sound, Jorge Cousineau; production stage manager, Patricia G. Sabato. Opened Jan. 23, 2008. Reviewed Jan. 24. Runs through March 16. Running time: 2 HOURS, 15 MIN.

Cast

Hamlet - Shawn Fagan Dr. John Faustus - Scott Greer The Eternal Feminine - Kate Udall Dr. Martin Luther - Greg Wood

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