Sunday, November 28, 2010

Hamlet remains undecided

Two fictional characters and a renowned theologian walk into a bar. Two acts later, despite much witticism, nothing is decided, though some thought is provoked, by the Seattle Shakespeare Company production of Wittenberg by David Davalos, directed by Rita Giomi.

Luther (Michael Patten), Hamlet (Connor Toms), and Faustus
(Chad Kelderman) in Seattle Shakespeare Company's production
of Wittenberg by David Davalos. Photo by John Ulman.
The story of the show is that Martin Luther, instigator of the protestant reformation, and Dr. John Faustus, fictional seller of his soul to the devil, are on the faculty of the University of Wittenberg, and Hamlet is a senior there though, not surprisingly, he still hasn't settled on a major. Luther (Michael Patten) and Faustus (Chad Kelderman) spar over the age-old debate of faith versus reason, their discussion spurred in part by recent writing by Polish scholar Nick Copernicus that the Sun, not the Earth, is at the center of it all. Hamlet (Connor Toms), true to form, tries to see both sides and is indeed helped by both. As it turns out, Luther's 95 theses were written in response to something of a bar bet. Faustus challenged Luther to come up with 100 things wrong with the church.

It seemed like Hamlet was about to get all of the answers when word came from Denmark that his father was dead, and he had to skedaddle for Elsinore.

It's a pretty damn smart play, though by coincidence a friend who is a Lutheran parson was at the same performance we attended and had a few quibbles with Davalos' version of Luther's theology. That aside, Davalos has clearly seen the inside of a church and a theater, and weaves scores of Hamlet references into the text. There must have been eight or 10 takes on the to-be-or-not-to-be soliloquy alone.

A few quibbles with the performances. This is a heavily wordy play, and there were a few obvious stumbles along the way. And an otherwise wonderful scene, in which Hamlet plays tennis with invisible off-stage foe Laertes, fell a bit short when Toms' swings got out of sync with the sound effect of racket smacking invisible ball. My Sweetie, the official scorer, missed most of that scene, as spectators Faustus and his floozy Helen (Michelle Chiachiere, who was wonderful as all the women in the show, from barmaid to Holy Mother) were essentially seated in her lap on the front-row aisle for the match. She did, however, get a close look at the costumes!

All in all, though, this is a marvelous play and a great partner to the other production Seattle Shakes is running at present, a straight-up Hamlet that is spectacular.

Go see. Both run through Dec. 5. There's great stuff happening at Seattle Shakes.

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