- Associated Press - Monday, March 21, 2011

NEW YORK (AP) - David Davalos‘ play “Wittenberg,” an unusual, tongue-in-cheek parody of classical theater, revives a trio of iconic literary and historical figures one would not expect to find at the center of a comedy.

The main protagonist in this Pearl Theatre Company production, which opened Sunday at off-Broadway’s New York City Center, is Hamlet, the Prince of Denmark, who is studying abroad at the University of Wittenberg in Germany, a locale briefly alluded to in Shakespeare’s “Hamlet.”

Sean McNall plays the college senior (Class of 1507) and member of the varsity tennis team. The impressionable young prince is predictably undecided about his major and finds himself torn between the conflicting ideologies of two illustrious professors.

On one side, there is Dr. John Faustus (Scott Greer), the scholar of German legend who famously let his thirst for knowledge and penchant for self-indulgence lead him to make a deal with the devil.

The legend of Faustus has been told and retold in several literary and musical works, including the classic play “Dr. Faustus” by Christopher Marlowe, Shakespeare’s contemporary.

Faustus spends much of his time verbally sparring with his fellow faculty member Rev. Martin Luther (Chris Mixon), the German priest and theologian who sparked the Protestant Reformation.

The professors’ philosophical rivalry dominates most of their dialogue, which is at times gruelingly cerebral. The two debate their respective viewpoints about areas in which faith and reason conflict, while competing for Hamlet’s loyalty.

Their star pupil becomes entangled in the debate while working through his own psychological baggage tied to his royal lineage and responsibilities back home.

Davalos uses the setting of the storied school as a common bond that links his three principal characters, while squeezing in sporadic references to historical phenomena of the era, such as the advent of the printing press, the popularization of coffee and the revolutionary astronomical theory of Nicolaus Copernicus.

The playwright’s focus on the scattered philosophical and historical aspects of the script seem to detract from his development of a central narrative and the relationships between his characters.

Davalos‘ writing is at its most clever when he playfully channels Shakespeare in giving voice to his own incarnation of Hamlet. His style is refreshingly accessible and reveals a talent for artful wordplay, notwithstanding a few too many turns of the phrase “to be, or not to be.”

During a tennis match, after a frustrated opponent flings his racket at Hamlet in anger, the prince fires back, “Thou hast clearly lost thy grip, good sir. Thou art quite unstrung,” while plucking at the strings of his own racket as if to punctuate the pun.

McNall, a resident actor of the Pearl since 2003, displays considerable classical acting chops in making the most of Davalos‘ frisky, pseudo-Elizabethan dialogue.

Joey Parsons plays Faustus‘ lover and other female characters, rounding out a capable cast that excels under the direction of J.R. Sullivan, the Pearl’s artistic director. Sullivan also directed a 2008 production of “Wittenberg” at the Arden Theatre in Philadelphia, which garnered the area’s Barrymore Award for outstanding new play.

The play, which is at City Center through April 17, is likely too pensive to appeal to a wider audience but should provide lighthearted amusement to enthusiasts of classical theater.

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