Hamlet goes to college
Playwright David Davalos comes to Chico with his play Wittenberg
Chico, CA 95928
In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the title character asks Rosencrantz and Guildenstern how they’re doing, to which the latter responds, “Happy, in that we are not over-happy, on fortune’s cap we are not the very button,” joking they are rather somewhere in the vicinity of Fortune’s “privates.” What The Bard is not so subtly saying, albeit in much prettier language, is simple: Fortune is a whore.
It’s a notion Colorado-based playwright David Davalos, author of Wittenberg—which Rogue Theatre will open next Thursday, Oct. 6, at the Blue Room—might argue with, considering how a fortuitous sojourn 20 years ago is playing out in his life today.
“I was at the Utah Shakespeare Festival in 1991, and [Chico actor] Joe Hilsee and I were playing Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in a production of Hamlet,” Davalos recalled when asked about the impetus for Wittenberg, a comedy set during Hamlet’s college years.
“Little choice bits of language stuck in my head, and one was Gertrude and Claudius telling Hamlet they didn’t want him to go back to school in Wittenberg. I was struck by the fact that Shakespeare emphasized it. He was making such a point to let the audience know Hamlet was going to school in Wittenberg, and I thought I should know more about that.”
He found that Martin Luther was a professor at the German university, which served as the powder keg for the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century. Davalos also stumbled across a story in The New Yorker that placed Dr. Faustus, star of the most retold deal-with-the-devil legend, on the faculty. The fiery priest, ill-fated prince and damned scholar all shared a common place, so Davalos decided to put them there at the same time.
“Shakespeare was saying to his audience that Hamlet wasn’t going to a traditional school,” Davalos explained, “but a center of Protestant learning, a place where intellectual challenge and debate was encouraged, people were asking questions, and there was a lot of dissent. … It tells the audience that this is a guy who was conditioned by his academic training to challenge authority.
“It’s also a place where the supernatural is present. Because of what Faustus does with the devil there, it primes the audience for understanding the appearance of the ghost in Hamlet.”
In the play, a tennis-playing Hamlet deliberates over what his major should be and deals with the conflicting philosophies on reason and fate of professors Faustus and Luther, who also represent surrogate fathers to the prince with well-known daddy issues. And, to reiterate, it’s a comedy.
“I figured Hamlet’s got enough tragedy in his own play,” Davalos joked. He also confirmed writing comedy with such heady characters and themes is a challenge: “I’d like to engage those ideas as seriously as I can. But I believe the old ‘spoonful of sugar’ thing, so I feel like the humor gives the audience something to hold onto.”
Davalos seems to have pulled it off quite well, judging by the critical and audience acclaim Wittenberg has received since premiering in Philadelphia in 2008. It has since enjoyed an off-Broadway run at New York’s Pearl Theatre. It also has been produced in London and Berlin.
The locale might not be as exotic, but Wittenberg’s Chico production is also special to Davalos. The author has a long-standing relationship with local theater dating back to meeting Hilsee in Utah. The two met again nearly a decade ago in Ashland, Ore., which led to Davalos’ regularly visiting Chico—where Wittenberg was partly written—to work with Hilsee, the Blue Room’s former artistic director, and one of the founders of Rogue. Davalos acted and directed alongside Hilsee with both theaters in productions of his own works (Daedalus, Deadfall) and others (Richard III, Nixon’s Nixon).
“I love Chico,” Davalos said. “In my normal life I do freelance corporate-communications stuff, so I’m working with pharmaceutical companies and financial-services firms. It’s not very artistic, so it’s nice to have this as an oasis. I like the situation where I sort of parachute in and we have two weeks to get a play done.”
While the Catholic/Protestant schism plays a role in Wittenberg, the Chico production plays an interesting role in the tale of a different schism. In 2007, Hilsee was cut loose as artistic director at the Blue Room, and many of the theater’s actors followed him in protest and formed the Rogue Theatre. Next week, Hilsee will be acting alongside Davalos and Blue Room regulars Keilana Decker and Ben Allen in what will be a Rogue production of Wittenberg at the theater. It will be the first time Rogue players have trod the Blue Room stage since the split, which could indicate interesting things afoot in the Chico theater scene.