The Reformation era comes alive in Appleseed’s spirited LutherIn a season when anger has become a political force, Appleseed Productions reaches back a generation to reintroduce the original Angry Young Man playwright, John Osborne. After getting in his licks at the British class system, Osborne turned his attention to that angry young man of the Reformation, Martin Luther. Osborne’s talent was not in theology and history but in putting sizzle on stage. His Luther won the Tony Award for best drama in 1964 and has always been a lure for strong talent, like Stacy Keach, Robert Shaw and Albert Finney. Director Dan Tursi, not often seen at Appleseed, has called in chits to get the right people in the right places for this show.
It cannot be overlooked, however, that Appleseed is staging Luther in the basement of the Atonement Lutheran Church, 116 W. Glen Ave. This weekend groups will be coming in to see it for Reformation Weekend, with a special Saturday matinee. It is also true that the Luther episodes put the Roman Catholic church at a disadvantage, not unlike its place in Bertolt Brecht’s Galileo. But Osborne was hardly interested in preaching and absolutely not in proselytizing. His Luther was a creature of multiple conflicts, bodily and intellectual as well as spiritually. He lives long enough to regret the bloodshed his rebellion engendered, and he speaks polished prose in marvelous speeches, if sometimes long ones.
Colorado-trained Nathan Young gives a bravura performance in the title role, painting with all the emotional colors of the palette.
These include: self-torment, righteous anger, doubt, resolution, rebellion, chumminess and later regret. There’s even a flash of comedy when he deftly mimics the snarl of the Inquisitor and indulgence-seller. Young, last seen in the March production of Neil LaBute’s The Shape of Things under Tursi’s hand at Rarely Done Productions, brings the good looks of a romantic leading man. Young’s youthfulness initially disorients the audience, more used to woodcuts of the great reformer as a mature man. Osborne’s script calls for us to begin with an inexperienced naïf, who remains a kind of kid in conflict with his bullying, disapproving father Hans (Ted Davenport) during the hour-long first act.
Which leads us to Luther’s greatest liability, visible mostly in the first act and not a problem elsewhere. That’s the heavy-handed, old-fashioned Freudianism Osborne borrowed from Erik Erikson’s once-fashionable study, Young Man Luther (1958). Erikson argued that Luther’s frequent scatological references could be linked to the anal retentiveness implied by his constant complaints of constipation. Well, we know now that both W.A.
Mozart (as attested by Peter Shaffer) and Judd Apatow are also given to scatology, and neither provides evidence of suffering anal retention. Shall we say, Luther’s case was subtler and more complex. As for the browbeating father, no fault of Mr. Davenport, we had hoped to bury him with Karl Malden in the 1957 movie Fear Strikes Out.
Luther shifts gears with the most wonderfully written supporting character in the drama: Johann Tetzel, the voice of the Inquisition and the top merchandiser of indulgences.
Bill Molesky, making a rare appearance at Appleseed, seizes this opportunity and runs with it. His huckstering Tetzel is a wholly original creation who might be mistaken for Mephistopheles playing Billy Fuccillo, with perhaps a few flourishes from Burt Lancaster’s Elmer Gantry. It’s enough to scare the children or any guileless senior citizens in the first row. None of this is over the top, however, when you consider the claptrap he’s selling. Not only can his indulgences relieve your dead relatives from (well-deserved) hellish torment, but they can spare you from punishment for sins you have not yet committed.
Later in the action an officious Pope Leo (Jimmy Curtin) tells a subordinate that the papacy is counting on the income from indulgences for building projects.
For all of Teztel’s spiky bile or the spiritless Leo, most of Luther’s other encounters with Catholic clergy are low-key and outwardly friendly, where we don’t get the drift of things until late in the dialogue. These begin with the kindly, understanding Weinand (Robert H. Brophy III), whose sweetness grows to impatience when he tells the young idealist, “God is not angry with you: You are angry with God.”
All the characters named in Osborne’s Luther are drawn from the historical record, and audience members already familiar with the story will know them. They come out differently in other retellings of these events, such as Eric Till’s movie Luther (2003), with Joseph Fiennes in the title role. Because he was a playwright instead of a historian, Osborne hammers and planes away some of the benign character of Johann von Staupitz (Paul Gundersen), who in life may have sympathized with Luther but returned to Catholicism before death. Further, he died before he could have given the last speech Osborne attributes to him. No matter. Staupitz’s dialogues with Luther in this play allow us to know what we need about motivation and decisions to be made.
The best of all these dialogues comes when Luther meets the papal legate, Cardinal Cajetan (Steven Braddock). In contrast to a lower-level pious shouter, John Eck (Robb Sharpe), the good cardinal is positively ingratiating. At first face Cajetan seems to be on top of Luther’s conscientious grievances and sufficiently perceptive to have seen deeply into the rebel’s soul and unconscious mind. It takes us and Luther a while to catch on that this is the most formidable of his adversaries.
In what almost feels like an anti-climax, a knight (David Simmons) delivers a harrowing exposition of what price in blood had been paid for the unrest triggered by Luther’s declaration of “Here I stand!” and his efforts to speak to God directly instead of through intermediaries.
Producers Pat Marzola and Kathleen Whipple have worked up many wonders on what looks like a small budget, starting with ecclesiastical finery by costumer John Poorman.
Navroz Dabu’s scenic designs, executed by artist Anne Fitzgerald, lighted by Dan Randall, include a dominating crucifix upstage and large prints of renaissance woodcuts. Sound designer William White’s well-selected music includes period motets and Gregorian chants.
John Osborne’s Luther is one of the most notable stage dramas of the last 50 years. Forget the venue; it’s not just for Lutherans. o
This production runs through Nov. 6. See Times Table for information.