Revealing universal truths in play ‘Wittenberg’

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In some beautifully strange parallel universe, Doctor Faustus tempted Martin Luther to condemn the papacy. Both men, as professors at University of Wittenberg, mentored Prince Hamlet — compounding the brooding young man’s internal conflicts. This is life in “Wittenberg,” which seamlessly integrates the stories of “Hamlet” and “Doctor Faustus” into a hilariously irreverent romp about the start of the Protestant Reformation. Playing at the Aurora Theater through May 4, “Wittenberg,” a prequel to both fictions, takes place in 1517 during Hamlet’s (Jeremy Kahn) senior year at the eponymous university. The play asks probing questions about the nature of free will and authority while incorporating quippy banter, puns and literary references that keep the audience riveted.

The synergy between history and fiction creates no tension within the play. In fact, “Wittenberg” thrives on the contextualization of literary understanding within a historical setting. The play unabashedly discusses a world without a god while set in a space anchored by religion. This dichotomy creates desirous conflict; it is a space suspended between history and fiction — its realm of possibilities is endless.

Every reference to Hamlet or Faustus as literary figures garnered uproarious laughter from the audience during opening night. When Hamlet examines a skull on Faustus’ (Michael Stevenson) office desk — cradling it delicately, holding the prop up to the light as if it were his destiny — the audience immediately grasped the implications. Faustus, Christopher Marlowe’s literary character who sold his soul to the devil for infinite knowledge, provokes Hamlet and Luther (Dan Hiatt) to start questioning their previous assumptions. Faustus bellows at both Hamlet and Luther throughout the play that only an individual can make his own choices.

Hamlet — haunted by horrifying nightmares — divulges to Luther, his priest, and Faustus, his professor, that he spent the summer studying astronomy with Copernicus, who had just written his treatise claiming a heliocentric universe. Faustus prods Hamlet: If religion is wrong about the position of the Earth in the universe, how else is it flawed? Luther tells Hamlet his new knowledge is a sin, like tasting the forbidden fruit from the Garden of Eden.

Although Hamlet is the main character in “Wittenberg,” the relationship between Faustus and Martin Luther could stand as its own play. Faustus enjoys playing devil’s advocate to Luther, who worries about the fate of Faustus’ soul. Their banter, full of alacrity and sarcasm, profoundly relates Luther’s qualms with Catholicism to Faustus’ search for questions instead of answers.

Faustus, listening sympathetically to his friend’s frustrations with indulgences and the papacy, encourages him to release aggression by writing down his objections. The result is the 95 Theses, which Faustus publishes without Luther’s knowledge. The cataclysmic shock of Luther’s 95 Theses irrevocably forked the course of western religion; as “Wittenberg’s” denouement, it serves to validate Faustus’ desire for more questions than answers. This play embraces fictitious alternatives to history for the sake of asking deeper questions.

The play’s reliance on literary canon and history relates startling, all-encompassing truths. Hamlet is understood to be “every man,” Luther is a historical juggernaut and Faustus is a cautionary tale. By starting with these established characters, “Wittenberg” can delve more immediately into questions of free will, faith and obedience. The dialogue is tinged with curiosity, and the play’s setting rides the crest of revolution. Each character, however, is forced into a decision with no other option by the end of the play, directly contradicting Faustus’ boasts about choices.

While reveling in an atheist world, choices were still made for each individual beyond their control. “Wittenberg” places the audience at the precipice of untold knowledge, considering the fates of all three characters with each tongue-in-cheek reference.

Contact Cara Cerino at [email protected].