THE ARTS ETC

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THE NEW ENGLAND PREMIER OF

WITTENBERG
A Tragical-Comical-Historical in Two Acts
August 17-28, 2011

by David Davalos
Directed by Byam Stevens

 

REVIEWED BY DONNA BAILEY-THOMPSON

To review or not to review. That’s not a question, that’s a challenge: to deliver as objective a review as possible of a production that’s loaded with true wit that entertains and informs, brought to sparkling life by four outstanding actors inspired by a director familiar with centuries of nuances. Chester Theatre Company’s final play of the summer is a hot ticket.

There’s a sex scene of a couple, dimly lit upstage, copulating with abandonment in a sea of bed linen while at stage front, titillation is heightened by the simultaneous recitation of the poetic love psalms composed by King Solomon, some of the most aphrodisiacal declarations ever written, punctuated by one of the most famous quotes: “The flowers appear on the earth; the time of the singing of birds is come, and the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land.” Oh yeah, baby. As for the audience, they are doing all they can not to fall out of their chairs and roll on the floor.

Set in October 1517, this mediaeval tour de force sets history on its ear. We meet a young, boyish Hamlet (delightfully played by Joel Ripka who last summer captured our hearts in the Nibroc cycle) revealing his difficulty with decision-making. Lines taken out of context from Shakespeare’s Hamlet are inserted where they fall trippingly from the tongue.

As John Faustus, the devil incarnate, actor James Barry seduces the audience with his roguish delivery. He also plays and sings topical ditties that enhance the story, a rock star ahead of his time.

Kent Burnham’s questioning Martin Luther brings a mix of self-assurance and desperate confusion as to what should be included in his famous list.

As The Eternal Feminine, Aubrey Saverino bewitches. She epitomizes the cliche, “a lady in the kitchen, a whore in the bedroom.” She’s also a whiz at figures (in addition to her own) when she tallies the selling price of her favors. It is Saverino and James Barry who succumb so lustily to lust.

There is no false note in this bubbling production. David Towlun’s set design of huge quarried stone, Roman arched into a mitered silhouette, frames a large recessed door – an infamous door-in-waiting. Lara Dubin’s lighting design, its judicious use of color and when to emphasize which surfaces, works hand-in-glove with the script. Costume Designer Sarah Patterson Nelson’s work suggests she loved clothing the cast because she’s done so with a witty flair.

Described by its nimble playwright David Davalos as “A Tragical-Comical-Historical in Two Acts,” WITTENBERG more than lives up to its billing. The deconstruction of historical time delineates its significance, exposes foibles, and advances understanding without requiring agreement. All this is accomplished with virtually continuous wit that massages the intellect. The actors’ delivery ranges from subtle to punched.

Directed by Byam Stevens, the Company’s Artistic Director, this WITTENBERG is a solid, finely tuned finale to a summer that has featured Jane Austin, Dostoyevsky, and Henry James – romance, murder, ghosts . Stevens’ brings multi-layered knowledge to his work which is seamlessly transferred to cast and crew – a priceless gift.

WITTENBERG is worthy of a discerning audience’s attention. Sales of Davalos’ script are bound to jump because it’s impossible to catch every quip and connect what’s happening now with the goings-on “back in the day.” Every line or arched brow is designed to amuse and stimulate reflection: any prisoners of this ingenious play are willing volunteers.


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