'Wittenberg' a senior year to remember

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CHESTER -- David Davalos’ "Wittenberg" is a witty, thoughtful, highly theatrical comedy about the grand philosophical and theological choices the universe throws at us as we make our way through life.

If that sounds pretentious and offputting, I apologize. Davalos’ play aims as low as it does high and in the hands of director Byam Stevens and a uniformly fine acting ensemble, it gets to where it wants to go in bold and exuberant style.

The setting is Wittenberg, Germany in October 1517. When he is not busy brooding, the melancholy, tennis-loving Hamlet (an ideally cast Joel Ripka), finds himself in his senior year at the university torn between the diametrically opposed viewpoints of his two most influential professors -- theologian The Rev. Martin Luther (perfectly played by Kent Burnham), whose bowels are blocked and whose mind is seething with anger at the indecent system of indulgences, which encouraged the faithful to buy their way out of responsibility for their sins while lining the coffers of the church and the pockets of its priests; and the deliciously secular, Dr. John Faustus (a splendidly Falstaffian James Barry), a Renaissance hippie doctor-philosopher with an exuberant distaste for authority and a remedy for everything from constipation of the bowels to constipation of the mind.

Faustus also has a healthy sexual appetite that is giving way to a longing for something more meaningful and permanent. He has committed his heart to an ex-nun (a fine Aubrey Saverino in one of several female roles), whom he deflowered while she was a Sister and who now finds pleasure in being any man’s woman, including Faustus’, for the right price.

There are easy jokes and puns that reference Shakespeare -- not to mention a brilliantly conceived tennis match between Hamlet and Laertes that echoes their fencing match in "Hamlet" -- and a variety of other classical and contemporay sources. Some carry a jaunty, audacious nudge-nudge-wink-wink; some have a too self-conscious air. Davalos is no Tom Stoppard. As a result,"Wittenberg" occasionally trips over its own cleverness and begins running out of ingenuity near the end. That it keeps from falling apart and recovers its style and voice in a haunting ending that foreshadows the start of the Protestant Reformation and the beginning of "Hamlet" is a testament to the skill of this company, especially Barry and his go-for-broke performance.

"Wittenberg" is an invigorating, bracing ending to one of the most satisfying Chester Theatre Company seasons.

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