Players on the world’s stage

Colorado Shakespeare Festival’s newest play ‘Wittenberg’ illuminates the joys and struggles of finding purpose


Hamlet couldn’t kill Claudius. Imagining the immediate pleasure in offing his father’s killer was not enough to knock the angel off his shoulder. His curiosity of the afterlife kept him from sinning and remained at the center of his psyche for the rest of his life. And local playwright David Davalos wonders why.

“Hamlet kind of inadvertently follows the path of a revenger, but really the crux of the play is him refusing to take on that role,” Davalos says. “What is going on in the mind of a person who is doing that?” 

His award-winning play Wittenberg, which premiered in Colorado at the Shakespeare Festival in June, tells the story of Prince Hamlet as a wavering senior in college at the end of the Middle Ages in 1517. While at the University of Wittenberg in Germany, Hamlet finds himself pinned in a corner by his professors Doctor Faustus, the devilish protagonist of the 16thcentury play written by Christopher Marlowe, and Protestant-pioneer Martin Luther, who fight for his devotion to their conflicting philosophies. Davalos weaves the lives of these three characters in a comedy that echoes the adolescent need to find purpose.

Prince Hamlet, played by Colorado’s rising star Benjamin Bonenfant, becomes the man he is in Shakespeare’s play, Davalos says, because of the influences of Faustus and Luther. The play is “reverse engineered” after Hamlet comes upon Claudius praying, a time that brought out both his Lutherian and Nietzschean qualities, he explains.

The play mirrors the power a university has in changing history, and the lives of its students and professors, as Hamlet begins his existential quest.

The real purpose of college is to help us decide who we want to be, Davalos argues, “and knowing as we do walking into the theater where Hamlet is going after this, it’s an interesting thing to be asking yourself — how much of your fate is written?” 

Premiering Wittenberg at the University of Colorado Boulder, a longtime partner of the Colorado Shakespeare Festival, was a treat for director Timothy Orr. Prince Hamlet’s undertaking isn’t very different from those of other students who enter their senior year undecided about a major. Many students feel the influence of professors like eccentric Faustus and conservative Luther and begin to see the world through a new lens.

“I hope [students are] taking away the original importance of having universities,“ Orr says. “It’s not just a place to get skills to go out and get a job, it’s also a place where knowledge is created and old ideas are replaced with new ones.”

But Davalos paints the life lesson as an enjoyable and comical one.

When Hamlet complains to Doctor Faustus about a recurring nightmare, a dream taken from the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey, he’s gifted with a satchel of “Moroccan” marijuana. In a haze, Hamlet wins a tennis match with his incredible energy the next morning. Adding to the humor, Hamlet speaks in pentameter throughout the play.

“At the beginning, I thought it would be fun to do Hamlet very modern, almost sort of inarticulate the way that a college kid can be,” Davalos says, “but then thought he had to live up to the audience’s expectation of what Hamlet would be.”

Davalos’ plays often bring classic, sought-after stories and characters into the modern day. Another one of his parodies, Orenthello, tells the story of O.J. Simpson by way of Othello. Wittenberg is ridden with Hamlet puns and contemporary and historical jokes throughout. With Orr’s help, Davalos draws connections between the existential pondering in the height of the ’60s, the beginning of the Protestant Reformation and the Scientific Revolution.

“The playwrights that I really revere are Shakespeare, Shaw and Stoppard and, especially with the latter two, they get their ideas across most effectively in the form of making you think while you’re laughing. So, I wanted to have that experience,” Davalos says. “Basically, I’m writing a play that I want to go see.”

Wittenberg is only one example of how the dynamicity of live performance lets us see the complex nature of our interactions, a phenomenon some say Shakespeare defines masterfully in his work. The play’s characters, like in many Shakespearean stories, express the celebration and exhaustion of self-discovery, forming relationships and encountering love. And for those reasons, some believe his plays will always be valuable.

Richelle Munkhoff, assistant professor of English at CU, has taught Shakespeare for the past 15 years and sees his plays as a gateway to understanding emotion. The goal for her, she says, is to allow her students to emotionally connect to some part of his writing.

“If [my students] don’t learn the historical facts or they evaporate from [their] mind[s] the minute [they] leave class, well, that’s OK as long as [they] remember that Ophelia really meant something to [them],” she says. “It seems like maybe a small goal, but I think those are the things that last.”

The Colorado Shakespeare Festival gives her students a chance to learn Shakespeare by seeing his plays come to life, which is the way his writing was meant to be experienced, Munkhoff says. Wittenberg’s contemporary message presents a unique opportunity for students to peer into their own lives. The play speaks to the difficulty high school graduates face when entering college, she says, when they are suddenly asked, “What do you think?” While such themes can often be cited in modern movies and novels, seeing the ideas come forth through the language of live performance is rare.

“I think live theater is so important — just the experience of seeing something created before your eyes,” Munkhoff says. “There is a kind of magic.

“So much of our culture is visual and acted, though not usually live,” she says, noting we generally enjoy seeing stories acted out on a screen more than reading them on a page. “But the real center of the passion is to watch stories, and that means so many more things can be part — music, cuts, lighting, costuming, acting — there’s so many more pieces to watch.”

ON THE BILL: Wittenberg. The University Theatre, University of Colorado Campus, Boulder. 303-492-8008. through Aug.8. 

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