Thoughtful laughs in Wittenberg

Hamlet's salad days
By MEGAN GRUMBLING  |  May 9, 2013


INQUIRING MINDS What did the Danish prince
learn in college, anyway? CREDIT AARON FLACKE

Much has been made of Prince Hamlet's exhausting philosophical indecision. To be or not? To kill or not? He has a hell of a time figuring it out, when he should be happily ensconced in college life back in Wittenberg. Many of us have studied the Hamlet's inner turmoil in his rotten home state. But did you ever wonder what the guy was like in college? Playwright David Davalos proposes that Hamlet (Rob McFayden) is trying to decide whether to major in theology or philosophy, and that he is studying with no less than Martin Luther (Hall Hunsinger) and the fictional John Faustus (Michael Hammond). All three men are on the brink of the upheavals that will make them famous — Luther's denouncement of the Catholic Church in his 95 Theses, Faustus's sale of his soul to the devil for the sake of knowledge and pleasure, and Hamlet's notorious indecision — in Wittenberg, a witty and fanciful philosophical romp. It receives a rich, empathetic, and very funny production under the direction of Ron Botting and Merry Conway, at Portland Stage Company.

It's late October 1517, and Hamlet is energized by the life of the mind and this hip, intellectual, beer-loving college town. He hangs out with his two favorite professors, listening them espouse very different views of life, death, science, and God. Luther lives with monastic forbearance, self-flagellates, and is devoted to the principles of Christianity. Bon vivant Faustus drinks, smokes, and fornicates, plays the guitar during open-mic night at the Bunghole, and considers the Bible "a great novel" and the devil "a state of mind." Hunsiger's sensitive Luther is composed and cautious, though he's also given to bursts of spiritual love, and can easily share a laugh at his own expense or Faustus's. Faustus, in Hammond's marvelous hands, is Dionysian and impulsive, a dynamo who would have been at home on a 1960s campus.

Their relationship is the heart and soul of the play. Luther's realm is the altar, while Faustus's is a study lined with books, vials, and curiosities (fine set design by Anita Stewart), but they meet in the pub. They're close friends, despite their oppositions; each has a strong respect for the other's intellect, they debate with spirit, and to watch the rapport drawn by Hunsinger and Hammond, both excellent, is an utter pleasure. They chide, tease, console, and rage at each other — over God, heliocentrism, and Faustus's all-encompassing love for a "fallen woman" (Caley Milliken, dynamically) — with the candor and the sheer enjoyment of true intimates.

Hamlet spends much of his time absorbing his professors' wisdom, along the way picking up plenty of one-liners that he'll soon be pronouncing back in Denmark (a running joke). McFayden makes the prince an amiable, eager, energetic acolyte with only a touch of angst — just enough to suggest the despair that will later engulf him. McFayden does well relating Hamlet's ominous, father-centered dreams (which are analyzed by Faustus in proto-talk therapy), and he has a fantastic scene of playing tennis against an angry Frenchman — a witty foreshadowing of his fateful swordfight with Laertes.

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  Topics: Theater , Portland Stage Company, Ron Botting
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