David Davalos’ intellectually engaging 2008 comedy “Wittenberg,” a delightfully imaginative meeting of the minds between polar opposites John Faustus and Martin Luther, receives a firm regional premiere at the Dayton Theatre Guild.
Crisply directed by Saul Caplan and set at the titular German university circa 1517, “Wittenberg” wittily addressees the fundamental agitation and complexity that arises when deep-rooted viewpoints are challenged to the core. Faustus, dramatized as a sociology professor although famously fictionalized as a scholar-turned-magician who sells his soul to the devil in Christopher Marlowe’s play “The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus,” and Luther, pioneer of the Protestant Reformation and founder of the Lutheran Church dramatized as a theology professor, are relatively cordial colleagues who relish their doctrinal differences. The self-assured, psychoanalytical Faustus (expertly portrayed by a cunning, teasing and intimidating David Shough) adamantly believes in free will (“you are what you choose”) while the constipated, slightly skeptical Luther (Charles Larkowski, terrifically stern and sincere) remains spiritually grounded (“the language of the Lord speaks to our souls not our minds”).
This didactic tug of war is not without odd shifts in tone and certainly could have transpired as a one-act, but Davalos, giving equal credence to both protagonists, interestingly flavors and extends the debate with the insertion of Hamlet (endearing Guild newcomer Jared Mola). Davalos humorously depicts the Prince of Denmark as an undeclared student with a penchant for tennis whose moodiness and startling visions is an effective bit of Shakespearean foreshadowing. Having Faustus and Luther’s eye-opening perspectives permeate in Hamlet’s indecisive, impressionistic mind is a key ingredient to the play’s battle of wills and collegiate authenticity. Lynn Kesson’s admirable portrayals of the female roles and K.L. Storer’s excellent sound design are also noteworthy.
Davalos’ commendable examination of reason vs. faith isn’t compelling, but is a worthwhile draw for theatergoers who prefer to think while being entertained.
“Wittenberg” continues through Feb. 26 at the Dayton Theatre Guild, 430 Wayne Ave. Performances are Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 5 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m. Act One: 60 minutes; Act Two: 55 minutes. Tickets are $11-$18. For tickets or more information, call (937) 278-5993 or visit www.daytontheatreguild.org