Friday, April 21, 2017

Comedy and Drama Meet at Wittenberg

I have come, over time, to love Hamlet's indecision, his crisis over life and death, and simply his overall dramatic conflict. This January I left the theatre entirely captivated after Southwest Shakespeare's Hamlet, in which William Wilson played the title role. How excited was I then to see their latest production, Wittenberg directed by Kent Burnham, in which Hamlet (once again played by Wilson) is a student at Wittenberg before his father dies and his teachers are John Faustus and Martin Luther. Intriguing, no?

Rather than their usual setting at the Mesa Arts Center, Southwest Shakespeare brought Wittenberg to Taliesin West (which is the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture). As this was my first time seeing Taliesin, I must give a nod to the beautiful location and the notable architecture of the place. Simply driving in at sunset was gorgeous.

The theatre itself was smaller than what I'm used to. It was open seating, by the way, so it is advisable to arrive early if you want to be able to choose your seat. I sat in the fourth row because I'm not used to being so close to the actors and because this seemed more at eye level, anyway. As the play began, I found that the small setting worked well for this play: there are only four actors and the content of the play revolves around statements and explorations of their personal viewpoints.

That is, Hamlet is troubled (as Hamlet gets), and Faustus is trying to get him to rely on reason and to simply live life as he wants, while Luther is advising him to rely on religion. And all the while, Luther is himself questioning religion and Faustus's way of living that he so loves is not always turning out the way he thinks it should. So Hamlet is caught in the middle, not sure to whose advice to listen.

Probably it goes without saying that you'll want to have at least basic familiarity with these three figures. The play is full of references to their lives and their quotes. There are plenty of references to other material, as well, but those are the types of details that you can go either way with recognizing or not recognizing; you'll still enjoy the play.

And enjoyable it is. It's a comedy because it's full of laughs. And it's a drama because the characters are asking deep questions. I suppose it's also a tragedy because we know what will happen to Hamlet and Faustus afterward.

Especially for including so many literary, historical, and theological references, this play does not feel heavy at all but rather flows smoothly, thanks no doubt to the performances by the actors. All four of them, William Wilson as Hamlet, David Dickinson as Faustus, Marshall Glass as Luther, and Allison Sell as the Eternal Feminine (she played four different female roles throughout the play), gave top tier performances. They instantly showed the tone of each character, they gave all the right comedic timing, and guided our way through all of these philosophical questions.

In one particular scene, Faustus gives Hamlet one word at a time, asking him to say the first word that comes to mind for each one. Talk about comedy and drama tied into one. It's a funny scene and yet it builds up to the darkness of Hamlet's inevitable fixation on death until it becomes something so tangible that no description of what theatre is seems like enough. I was talking about the fourth wall earlier this week, and this play was more like gazing through the fourth wall until all the walls become a bubble and you're focusing on this sphere of quasi-reality that takes precedence, for this moment, over everything in the real world. That's all thanks, once again, to the actors.

I'll finish with a note on the questions that these characters struggled with throughout the play. We all, at times, feel the conflict between opposing viewpoints. Maybe we align more with one side versus the other, or maybe we really have no idea which makes more sense--but we've all experienced being able to see the two sides. Sometimes it's confusing. Sometimes it's discouraging: even if we know which side we've chosen, it isn't always easy to know how we relate to the opposing side. So I loved seeing these three characters caught up in the opposition, tossing and turning until finally something begins to make sense to them.

Questions. Questions go on as long as life does. We don't need all the answers--we just need the right answers to make clear the uncertainty.

Wittenberg is playing until the 29th. As one of my favorite productions that I've seen from Southwest Shakespeare, I would definitely recommend going to see it. It's one of those plays that you won't forget.

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