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Fern Siegel

Fern Siegel

Posted: March 22, 2011 03:22 PM

Stage Door: Wittenberg, Arcadia


Imagine taking a really cool philosophy course, where the professor, Dr. Faustus, is like Jack Black with a Ph.D. The issues of free will, choice and individual integrity are paramount -- and taught with passionate glee. Welcome to Wittenberg, now at City Center. The final production in the Pearl Theater's season, the pace is zippy, the themes beautifully articulated and the overall sensation exhilarating.

Blending pop-culture references -- from The Wild One to Shakespeare to Freudian therapy -- playwright David Davalos sets his dynamic comedy in 1517 Germany, just before Martin Luther ignited the Reformation. Dr. Faustus (a fantastic Scott Greer) and Rev. Martin Luther (a perfect Chris Mixon), teach at Wittenberg University, where they spar for the soul of Prince Hamlet (Sean McNall).

Who knew revisiting the 16th century's faith vs. reason battles could be such fun?

That's thanks to a witty, literate script, which understands that the sacred and profane are often intertwined. Here, religious dogma is turned on its head; Dr. Faustus administers skepticism, intellectual rigor and nifty new drugs (like coffee) with verve. And he's enamored of a young woman (Joey Parsons), a sassy ex-nun who's a blueprint for female independence.

Faustus is apothecary and philosopher, while Luther, an impassioned cleric disgusted by the Catholic Church's corruption, is about to unleash his own historic thunder: his famous 95 Theses.

Davalos cleverly pits Marlowe's Faustus, Shakespeare's Hamlet and Luther in a modern-day mash-up. Hamlet has yet to declare a major -- and both men long to guide him in his future as king. Faustus envisions a royal led by reason and open-mindedness. For instance, Hamlet devours Copernicus' theory of heliocentricity (the Earth revolves around the sun), a scientific doctrine embraced by Faustus but repudiated by the church.

Hamlet, a young man who respects both his elders, is as besotted by original thought as he is captivated by Luther's piety and seriousness. Wittenberg, aided by streamlined direction and simple, effective lighting, gives both thinkers their due. "To be or not to be" never sounded so entertaining.

Tom Stoppard, no stranger to intellectual vigor or comedic word play, is well-served in the revival of Arcadia now at the Ethel Barrymore Theater. Set in both an English country estate in 1809 and present day, Arcadia is a masterful, impassioned homage to the joys of intellectual discovery. It's an extraordinary achievement; a lively meditation on the importance of "wanting to know" what makes the world tick: from carnal to artistic pleasures.

The play opens in pastoral England, where a precocious 13-year-old Thomasina (Bel Powley) and her tutor Septimus (Tom Riley) enjoy an academic rapport. She's a curious adolescent blessed with mathematical genius. Alas, it will only be appreciated centuries later, by one of her familial descendants, Valentine (Raul Esparza).

In fact, Arcadia is a fast-paced, philosophical romp through time. That charge is led by Bernard Nightingale, a magnetic Byron scholar (a scene-stealing Billy Crudup) and Hannah, an acclaimed author researching the Romantic period (Lia Williams), both standouts. Each is obsessed with a literary quest: Bernard is hoping his Byron theory will land him media celebrity; she lusts after academic certainty. Together, they beautifully demonstrate the limits of scholarship and the limitless hunger of those who pursue the past.

Arcadia is a complicated story, and it derives its many delights from Stoppard's extraordinary language and intellect. However, some of the actors race through their weighty lines -- and it is easy to miss the occasional bon mot. Plus, casual subplots abound, demanding the audience pay close attention to character and detail. David Leveaux directs a wonderful cast, placed in a stripped-down mansion designed by Hildegard Bechtler. The set is simple; the play's the thing.