Wit, Wordplay and Wondrous Performances mark Upstream’s clever ‘Wittenberg’

By Lynn Venhaus
Managing Editor
The never-ending debate between science and religion gets a robust workout in the cosmic ‘tragical comical historical’ play “Wittenberg,” which is even more fascinating because two local Hall of Famers, the venerable Steve Isom and Alan Knoll, spar like heavyweight boxing champs in a title bout.

Upstream Theatre’s imaginative staging of David Davalos’ zesty time-bending comedy-drama pits real-life icon Martin Luther (Alan Knoll) as a theology professor and significant fictional character Dr. John Faustus (Steve Isom) as a professor of philosophy at Wittenberg University.

Seeking truth and their way, into the ring these two titans go, 16th century-style: faculty office, local watering hole – where hipster Faustus plays ‘lite lute,’ tennis match and some dank settings.

Wittenberg U., founded in 1502, was made famous by its teacher Luther. In 1517, he may – or may not have — nailed “Ninety-Five Theses,” in Latin, to the nearby Castle church doors. The play begins before that happens, pre-tipping points in each of three men’s lives.

Naturally, Luther would have a lot to say about God, faith, religion and church teachings. Davalos assumes that fictional “frenemy” Faustus – you know, the guy that made the deal with the devil in Christopher Marlowe’s Elizabethan tragedy – would too.

In literature, Marlowe made Faustus a Wittenberg graduate and Shakespeare described Hamlet as a student at Wittenberg. That allows Davalos to borrow from both worlds, with a clever “What If?” premise that has both scholars vying for influence over the malleable and undeclared Hamlet. Yes, that Prince of Denmark.

Photo by ProPhotoSTL

Hamlet is having a crisis of faith after studying astronomy with Copernicus in Poland over the summer. Casey Boland plays him humorously as a smart, and questioning, but still aimless, lad – and with the looks of a British matinee idol.

Being a royal is a burden Hamlet would rather not deal with, as he plays tennis with Laertes and muses with his instructors about the meaning of dreams.

With Davalos’ wit, wordplay and audacity, the philosophical tango between the two elder statesmen is a joy to watch, comparable to what it might have been like seeing two legends and good friends Sir John Gielgud and Sir Ralph Richardson on the Old Vic stage – that chemistry, that spark. Yes, they are that good in that context, and Isom is a revelation. I was only familiar with his work in musical theater, whereas I have seen Knoll in all genres for four decades.

Alan Knoll as Martin Luther and Steve Isom as Faustus. Photo by ProPhotoSTL

The pair lends such a vitality to this material, and their ease with each other, not to mention obvious mutual respect, makes this challenging work come to animated life – and adds another jewel in their crown.

Director Philip Boehm keeps the action pertinent and the conversations engrossing so that it isn’t static at all. He’s another maestro, moving people around well for different interaction and some defining scenes. Trusting his cast’s instincts is another accomplishment.

We enter this match-up the last week of October in 1517, but it might as well be during the Me Decade of the 1970s, for rakish Faustus is the cool professor, a proud hedonist, who isn’t above bending rules or crossing lines. He sure loves pontificating with his students. He hasn’t met Mephistopheles yet, but he has those good and bad angel debates.

While Luther is all professorial, pious and dogmatic, Faustus is erudite, lusty, curious and incorrigible. If anyone in the academic world is going rogue, it’s him.

Faustus frustrates Luther, and vice versa. The differences in their world viewpoint are illustrated in their ‘pitches” to Hamlet.

Luther earnestly seeks the truth, and Knoll portrays him as a passionate man on a mission, if somewhat pompous. He does not suffer fools and unleashes fiery tirades against Faustus’ prurient interests and devil-may-care attitude. But he is really peeved at some of the church mandates and papal teachings. You all know what that is going to lead to – the Protestant big bang rebellion.

There is also the introduction of the Eternal Feminine, using the psychological archetype as part of the story, too. This component is in the shape of lovely Caitlin Mickey as a comely barmaid resembling the St. Pauli Girl – “a working girl,” as Helen of Troy, “a woman of pleasure,” seen as a seductive temptress with Faust, the Blessed Virgin Mary, “mother of God” and Lady Voltemand, “an ambassador.” Mickey pulls them all off with verve, a considerable feat — but really, why is this philosophical commentary here? Seems a tad unnecessary.

Photo by ProPhotoSTL

Back to the dynamic duo, wearing some spectacular Renaissance hats assigned by costume designer Laura Hanson, and talking about what’s on their minds and in their hearts.

Their garments and robes are well-appointed. As courtesan Helen, Mickey is stunning in a gorgeous red statement gown. Hamlet dons a white tennis sweater with an embroidered “W.” You can see the humor in the blending of styles.

Michael Heil’s scenic design is also a clever mash-up, with a striking set of crucifixes attached to a bracket that serves as a backdrop.

A large table doubles as a desk with many medieval accoutrements. Rachel Tibbetts did a terrific job finding period items for props.

Steve Carmichael’s lighting design is effective in differentiating scenes and moods.

“Wittenberg” is an interesting conceit, sharply directed and spotlighting two old pros at the top of their game. Upstream has provided an enriching experience for those who want exposure to other perspectives as we grapple with the same ideas five centuries later.

And Steve Isom should act in more plays.

Upstream Theater presents “Wittenberg” from Jan. 25 to Feb. 10 at the Kranzberg Arts Center. For tickets or more information, visit www.upsreamtheater.org

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