Friday, November 1, 2013

Wittenberg: A Captivating Hamlet Prequel

by Jenni Morin

San Antonio playwright David Davalos returns for The Playhouse's Cellar Theater production of his Wittenberg, playing November 1 through November 17. Wittenberg poses a debate between Martin Luther and John Faustus that would make anyone a little head-spinning mad and Hamlet, the impressionable scholar questioning his life’s purpose, is no exception.

David Davalos as John Faustus, Sam Mandelbaum as
Hamlet and Andrew Thornton as Martin Luther in Wittenberg.
Photo by Siggy Ragnar.
Wittenberg places three characters from history, literature and folklore at the university where Hamlet presumably studied before his father’s death. The action takes place directly before he receives the news. Martin Luther is a professor of theology, while John Faustus is a professor of philosophy. Luther and Faustus entangle Hamlet in their debate while he clamors to find himself in the universe and get his bearings.

The production follows the anachronistic nature of the play where a few modern props, set decorations, costume pieces and colloquialisms call attention to the imagined scenario. Without these few reminders of the mixed time periods and metatheatrical references, it’s easy to fall into believing it is more historical than fictional. Director Bill Gundry reverently molds this well-crafted play and talented actors into a refreshingly provocative production. From a technical standpoint, the lighting had a few visionary moments while the sound felt haphazard and almost distracting. The transitions between scenes were uninspired and executed poorly when blending light and sound.

Sam Mandelbaum as Hamlet. Photo by Siggi Ragnar.
While Davalos employs some classical rhythm and exchanges, paying homage to Hamlet’s author, the dialogue resists being weighed down by the classical tongue by utilizing modern phraseology. The audience is pulled back and forth in a welcomed juxtaposition between the past and the present. The incessant questions of “why?” and “what if?” proliferate the action, making for fast-paced exchanges, both humorous and stimulating.

As expected, Davalos commands his role as Faustus with resilient passion, presenting a bombastic provocateur with a human vulnerability. Overall the cast shows true investment in the characters, not just their lengthy diatribes. Consider this Sam Mandelbaum’s audition and scene work for the role of Hamlet, a character he brings to life in the present beyond Shakespeare’s confines. As always, Andrew Thornton is brilliant as Martin Luther, illustrating his struggle perpetuated by the naturalistic parley with Davalos. While Christina Casella must take on all the female roles as The Eternal Feminine, it is her second scene as Faustus’ lover when she spends the most time on stage and is able to showcase her talent.

David Davalos’ Wittenberg is witty, insightful and cheeky. Best of all, this piece is always timely, asking the questions of faith and reason, pitting theology and philosophy against each other in a match of interpretation and the unknown. It stands on the cusp of scientific and philosophical discovery—the revolution of the solar system, the birth of psychology, and the Protestant reformation, to name a few—all the while making convoluted ideas accessible.

Wittenberg runs at The Playhouse’s Cellar Theater November 1 through 17, 2013 with performances at 8 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays; and 3 p.m. and 8 p.m. on Sundays. For more information and to purchase tickets, visit

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