Sunday, September 14, 2014


By Ruth Ross

If you have ever wondered what a critic meant when he or she described a production as a tour de force, I suggest you run, do not walk, over to the F.M. Kirby Shakespeare Theatre in Madison to see one in the flesh. There, the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey has mounted the dazzling New Jersey premiere of a wickedly clever play about the Protestant Reformation (yes, the Reformation, really) called Wittenberg, penned by David Davalos, and it is a production you won't want to miss. Davalos has likened the University of Wittenberg as akin to Berkeley in the 1960s, "a center for intellectual ferment" and "a certain amount of invention"—a perfect setting for the exhilarating verbal pyrotechnics and war of ideas that play out before our eyes.

STNJ_Wittenberg_8334Over the course of two and a half hours, Davalos manipulates time and space to provocatively debate fate, existence, doubt and belief...and tennis. In this contemporary riff on the "big" questions that have eternally plagued mankind, we find Hamlet, after an eye-opening summer of studying abroad, beginning his senior year at the University of Wittenberg, where he studies with Dr. John Faustus and Martin Luther, indecisively contemplates which major to declare, and plays varsity tennis. That the action occurs just weeks before Luther nails his 95 Theses to the doors of a Wittenberg church, thus rupturing the Catholic Church forever, makes the debate even more hilarious and delicious. Never mind that the philosopher Faustus is a fictional character (as is Hamlet), for the three are fully drawn characters with a great deal to say, all of it witty and much of it familiar. (Above, Anthony Marble as Dr. Faustus regales Jason Coughtry’s Hamlet with his ideas.)

In his 24th season with STNJ, Joe Discher has directed this fast-moving, shape-shifting play with fluidity and style. The characters' words swirl around the auditorium in a mad, madcap assault on one's ears and brain; just as you get one allusion to Hamlet (among other works), you're off chasing another. Far from being confusing, however, the dialogue has a certain familiarity while it plays with meaning.

STNJ_Wittenberg_8322The brilliant cast Discher has assembled delivers these lines with wry humor. Jordan Coughtry's Hamlet (right) is the quintessential collegian, caught up in the intellectual foment around him while worried about an upcoming tennis match with a player named Laertes from the University of Paris. Torn between the theology of Luther and the philosophical pronouncements of Faustus, he has wild nightmares about a bottomless abyss upon whose edge he teeters; Coughtry's recital of his dream is a wonder to behold!

But it is the two actors playing Faustus and Luther who carry the brunt of the action as they struggle for the young man's attention. Anthony Marble (below, left) is excellent as a very contemporary Faustus (he STNJ_Wittenberg_8870plays guitar in a coffeehouse called The Bunghole), a lawyer and physician who dispenses coffee and special candies that contain a drug suspiciously like marijuana as antidotes to Luther's constipation and Hamlet's emotional turmoil. He cavorts around the stage, jumping on benches and tables, a veritable whirlwind of ideas and knowledge. As Luther, Mark H. Dold (right, with Coughtry center) wrestles mightily with his bowels and his faith, while dueling with Faustus over Hamlet's fate. He despairs over the Church's sale of Indulgences, get-out-of-Purgatory passes for sins, to raise money for cathedrals, a protest that eventually got him excommunicated.

STNJ_Wittenberg_8603Rounding out this quartet of talent is Erin Partin (left, with Marble and Coughtry) as the Eternal Feminine. As Helen of Troy, she rejects Faustus' marriage proposal, but allows him to make love to her in a wild scene that accompanies a lecture given by Luther on a Biblical text. She also appears in other female incarnations, all of them different, and all of them comical. The four actors exhibit spot-on comedic timing that keep the quips coming quickly and hilariously.

Brittany Vasta's set smoothly transforms itself from exterior to interior scenes by opening and closing halves that also revolve when pushed by stagehands dressed to match the time and place. Matthew E. Adelson's lighting, Steven L. Beckel's sound (especially appropriate during the uproarious tennis match) and Hugh Hanson's witty costumes are equally superb.

I had the good fortune to attend a reading of Wittenberg last year, followed by a discussion about whether STNJ should consider producing it. That they did is a tribute to their great ability, for the staged production is even better than I could have imagined it! Shape-shifting, time-bending Wittenberg is a true intellectual and artistic tour de force—a stunning success that will keep you talking after you've left the theater. You won't want to miss it.

Wittenberg will be performed at the F.M. Kirby Shakespeare Theatre on the campus of Drew University, 36 Madison Avenue, Madison through September 28. For information and tickets, call the box office at 973.408.5600 or visit  online.

Photos © Jerry Dalia.