By Beki Pineda; Image: Colorado Shakespeare Festival

WITTENBERG. Written by David Davalos; directed by Timothy Orr. Produced by Colorado Shakespeare Festival (at the indoor University Theatre on campus) through Aug. 8. Tickets available at 303-492-8008 or coloradoshakes.org.

We find Prince Hamlet back at college after a visit to his parents in the family castle. Two of his teachers—Dr. Faustus, who teaches philosophy, and Dr. Luther (as in Martin), who teaches theology—prize Hamlet as their most promising student. Each is determined to get him to choose their respective field as his major and to prepare him for his eventual role as king. Both of them present compelling arguments for the merits of their beliefs, leaving poor Hamlet to bounce between them.

Remember the first time you saw METAMORPHOSES and how smart you felt because you knew most of the Greek myths it illustrated?  This play has that intellectual stimulation as well. Playwright David Davalos has scattered random Shakespeare references and specifically Hamlet quotations and situations throughout the play. With this audience, versed in Shakespeare’s work, a little ripple of recognition swept across the house as each of these was thrown casually into the conversation. For instance, Hamlet picks up a skull from Dr. Faustus’ desk, looks at it for a long moment, and then, instead of breaking into the familiar Yorick speech, turns to Faustus and asks, “Who is this?”

Writing in modern language allows for modern jokes Shakespeare could not have anticipated. We watch as Hamlet plays tennis with an offstage Laertes. In green Boulder, a line like “Your boy plays well on grass,” could have multiple meanings. The audience got all of them.

The script puts forth several somewhat radical (and comical) ideas. It implies that Dr. Martin Luther’s shattering treatise against the Catholic Church was penned because of a dare by Dr. Faustus and was nailed to the church door by mistake. We are also led to believe that the controversial theory posited by Copernicus that the Earth revolved around the sun, as opposed to the sun around the Earth, was delayed because the only written copy was burned in a fit of pique.

In an acting company of 33, it’s pleasurable to note that 25 of them are actors with local ties that we are able to enjoy year-round. Producing artistic director Timothy Orr continues the casting policies put into place by his predecessor, Philip Sneed, of casting from the considerable actor pool available in the metro area. Guest artists are brought in to up the ante on some of the lead roles. I know these guests are pleasantly surprised by the degree of creativity and competence of the local company.

For instance, local favorite Larry Hecht from the Denver Center and Curious Theatre plays Dr. Faustus in this production. He is joined by Benjamin Bonenfant in the role of Hamlet, whose CSF work is bolstered by roles at Curious Theatre and BETC.  The slightly befuddled Dr. Luther is created by guest artist Howard Swain. The lone female playing multiple roles is local actress Mare Trevanthan.

While the cast did good work with the script they were given, there was a sort of “Wait for it . . . bam!” quality to the delivery of the comic dialogue. An anticipation to the comedy, as it were—almost as though they were slyly telling us, “Don’t miss this.” The lines, for the most part, were clever enough without the verbal buildup.

Caitlin Ayer’s set separates Dr. Luther’s spartan surroundings from Dr. Faustus’ elaborately cluttered classroom, and indicates their mental states as well. A painted scrim at the rear is adorned with the supposed seal of Wittenberg University. Under certain lighting, it takes on a spectral monster-like look and, when lit from behind, illuminates a secondary acting space for sex and singing scenes. The costumes by Hugh Hanson are about the only thing that sets the play firmly in 1517. Nearly everything else, especially the language, is era-ambiguous.

The 58th season for CSF is underway. Summer isn’t summer until you’ve seen at least one CSF production. Time to get started!

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