Hamlet abundant with wit in ‘Wittenberg’

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COURTESY DAVID ALLEN
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Hamlet goes back to school in “Wittenberg.”

The German university that got little more than a mention in Shakespeare’s greatest tragedy is the center of the universe — and a hotbed of 16th century radical thinking — in David Davalos’ freewheeling and very funny comedy, now making its Bay Area premiere in an Aurora Theatre Company production.

The Danish prince meets Martin Luther and Doctor Faustus in this sly prequel to “Hamlet,” staged for maximum comic effect by Josh Costello.

It’s 1517, and Hamlet (Jeremy Kahn), entering his senior year at Wittenberg, is feeling stressed out. He’s just returned from Poland, where he studied with Copernicus, and he’s still struggling with the unprecedented idea of the Earth revolving around the Sun. He’s dazed and depressed, unable to sleep, and his tennis game is suffering.

His teachers are no help.

On one side, there’s the devout priest Martin Luther (Dan Hiatt). On the other is the philosophy professor Faustus (Michael Stevenson), a subversive hedonist who encourages free thinking, touts the pleasures of the flesh and moonlights as a lute player playing pop songs in a local tavern.

With Luther about to unwittingly launch the Protestant Reformation, and Faustus seeking immortality by any means possible, the battle for Hamlet’s soul becomes crucial.

Davalos packs this tragical-comical-historical production with references, puns, snappy wordplay, breezy jokes and endless riffs on “Hamlet” and other Shakespeare plays.

Hamlet endures a tennis match (with Laertes, natch), a Shakespearean free-association test and, of course, a ghostly apparition. Faustus and Luther engage in several dazzlingly cerebral pas de deux.

Costello’s staging spins out on Eric E. Sinkkonen’s multi-level set, enhanced by Jim Cave’s lighting, Chris Houston’s sound and period costumes by Maggi Yule.

Stevenson makes the brilliant Faustus magnetic and larger than life. Kahn’s Hamlet is a charming smart aleck and Hiatt’s dry Luther projects a fine comic mix of piousness and exasperation. Elizabeth Carter shines in the female roles of Gretchen, Helen, Lady Voltemand and the Virgin Mary.

If the play never makes the characters fully dimensional — the script lacks the humanity of Tom Stoppard’s “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead,” a deeper comedy based on “Hamlet” — it certainly suggests the monumental spirit of change that animated Wittenberg.

As the characters consider questions of hope and reason, faith and free will, “Wittenberg” keeps the audience engaged. No wonder Hamlet wanted to return.

REVIEW

Wittenberg

Presented by Aurora Theatre Company

Where: 2081 Addison St., Berkeley

When: 7 p.m. Tuesdays, 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays; closes May 4

Tickets: $32 to $50

Contact: (510) 843-4822, www.auroratheatre.org

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