By Beatrice Williams-Rude
A most unusual and dazzling theatrical event is transpiring at The Pearl Theatre.
Martin Luther on Trial is set on a crossroad between Heaven and Hell and transcends time. Part debate, theology examination, philosophical discourse, historical retrospective, Martin Luther on Trial is intellectually challenging, a play for the head. The crackling dialogue is rich with sharp observations and cutting wit. The work, by Chris Cragin-Day and Max McLean, has been meticulously researched and the cast of characters reflects this.
The play dissects not only Martin Luther the man, but the effects of his words and positions on those who came after him including Hitler and Sigmund Freud.
The question being debated at the trial, over which St. Peter presides, is whether Luther belongs in Heaven or Hell. Had he committed the unpardonable sin: blasphemy against the Holy spirit?
For Luther’s defense is Katie Von Bora, his wife, passionately and tenderly portrayed by Kersti Bryan. The prosecutor is the Devil, brilliantly enacted by suave, elegant Paul Schoeffler, who has perfect comic timing. Yes, there are laugh lines. As Milton noted while writing Paradise Lost, the devil is much more interesting than God.
Katie and the Devil parry and thrust as they cross examine each other’s witnesses.
Concepts of justice come into play—how could God’s treatment of Job be justified? Why was David, whose sins were grievous, forgiven and embraced? Theology is brought into question: Tetzel the rabbi and Hebrew scholar, notes that it was a mistranslation of the Bible that mistakenly substituted “virgin” for “young girl,” that changed the concept of Mary, mother of Jesus.
That Martin Luther had a profound effect on Western Civilization is generally acknowledged. But for good or ill? That’s the question. He spearheaded the Reformation, which led to the ‘counter Reformation. His heroic “Here I stand; I can do no other” is handled most effectively. However, his early positions were not reflected in his later words. He encouraged the peasants but when they revolted he, seeking the protection of the princes, turned on them savagely. He spoke in favor of the Jews, but then turned them in language that was embraced by Hitler.
Martin Luther is sensitively played by Fletcher McTaggart and there’s a rich portrait of St. Peter by jovial John Michalski.
Mark Boyett is truly a man for all seasons playing Hitler; St. Paul; Freud, a particularly delightful portrayal offering much comic relief; and Pope Francis.
Jamil A.C. Mangan also does yeoman work playing Tetzel; Confessor; Martin Luther King, Jr.; Philip Melanchthon, the Holy Roman Emperor; and the Archangel Michael.
There are spectacular special effects: the set design is by Kelly James Tighe; lighting design by Geoffrey D. Fishburn, original music and sound design by Quentin Chiappetta.
The appropriate costumes are by Nichole Wee. The superb direction is by Michael Parva.
The production is being presented by FPA, Fellowship for Performing Arts, whose “mission is to present theatre from a Christian worldview that engages a diverse audience” according to artistic director Max McLean, who is also one of the authors of this play.
Reflecting on other historical plays that involve imaginary encounters I recall the thoughtful, hilarious and utterly glorious David Davalos play, Wittenberg, in which Martin Luther, Dr. Faustus and young Prince Hamlet meet and hold a discourse.. It was that play that made me so eager to see to this one—if it were even half as good it would be splendid. It was.
Martin Luther on Trial officially opened on Dec. 14 and runs through Jan. 29 at The Pearl Theatre, 555 West Forty-second ‘street, between Tenth and Eleventh Aves. www.pearltheatre.org
Photos: Joan Marcus