By Martin Morse Wooster: The Fellowship for Performing Arts is a nonprofit founded by Max McLean which says its goal is to provide “provocative, entertaining theatre from a Christian worldview that is engaging to a diverse audience.” What this means is that they are trying to produce good theatre with religious content.
Most of their work so far has been based on C.S. Lewis. I’ve seen two of their earlier shows. The Screwtape Letters was their first production, and I thought it was a snappy two-hander. They followed this with The Great Divorce, which led me to read Lewis’s novel. All I remember is that Lewis’s book was not translatable to the stage, which led to the adapters throwing out half the book and replacing it with another half that didn’t work either.
In addition, Max McLean came to Washington with a one-man show, C.S. Lewis: The Most Reluctant Convert, which I didn’t see.
Martin Luther on Trial is the only FPA production that isn’t based on Lewis’s work or life, although in a post-show discussion McLean said that the character of the Devil was partially inspired by Lewis’s introduction to Paradise Lost. It was performed at the Shakespeare Theatre in Washington in late May. I think the theatre was about 80 percent full, despite a nasty late spring storm.
The play was co-written by McLean and Chris Cragin-Day, who teaches theater at The King’s College. In his post-discussion comments, McLean said the play has been in development since 2012, with the idea of having a play commemorating the 500th anniversary of the Reformation in 2017. One critical change, McLean said, was that Cragin-Day decided to change the play from a history play to a supernatural one.
The setting is the afterlife, where Martin Luther is on trial over his ideas. The Devil is the prosecutor and Luther’s wife, Katie von Bora, is his chief defense attorney. If von Bora wins Luther gets to remain in Heaven, and if the Devil wins he goes to hell. St. Peter is the judge.
This is a somewhat old-fashioned idea, and you could easily see this play produced in 1948. The reasons this play is contemporary lies in how they answer this question: how can you write a play about a preacher without being, well, preachy? Or, casting this question in sf terms, how can you produce a play about Luther without periodic infodumps where characters say, “As you know, Bob, in 1518 Luther…”
What Cragin-Day and McLean did was put in a lot of comedy without descending into camp or snark. Scenes are a lot shorter than they would have been in 1948, and alternate between scenes with Luther and other characters describing Luther’s views. For example, Adolf Hitler is brought on stage to show how the Nazis thought Luther a German patriot. In the end, Hitler descends into foam-flecked dementia, where it’s revealed he didn’t believe in Christianity or any religion except the greatness of Adolf Hitler. St, Peter’s last words—“Adolf Hitler, go to hell!” brought some cheering from the audience.
Other figures from history who are witnesses are Sigmund Freud, who discusses Luther’s descent into a rage against the world fueled by kidney stones, and also calls the Devil a “poser” because the devil couldn’t possibly exist, and Pope Francis, who conveys the Church’s nuanced position on the Reformation. Max McLean, in a program note, is careful to say that the Pope’s teachings conveyed on stage are taken from his book The Joy of the Gospel. There’s even a lightning round of historical figures at the start of the second act, including Friedrich Nietzsche (who says no one understands him) and Christopher Hitchens. Both Nietzsche and Hitchens are played by a black actor, Jamil Mangan (who also plays Martin Luther King) while a white actor, Mark Boyett, plays all Hitler, Freud, and the Pope,
The fantasy scenes of the trial are interspersed with short dramatic scenes with Luther showing his life. The portrait of Luther is nuanced, with his anti-Semitism and his rage against the world in his old age fairly portrayed. I came away from Martin Luther on Trial thinking I learned a fair amount about him.
The cast was good, with Kerati Bryan as Katie von Bora delivering a strong performance, with Fletcher McTaggart as Luther also worth watching, even if he was a little overwrought. Paul DeBoy as the Devil had the best lines and delivered them well.
Special note should be made of an effect by scenic designer Kelly James Tighe, in which a giant stack of books is displayed, but characters are able to pull a book out of the pile without the tower of books falling down. I think all fans can sympathize with this.
I thought Martin Luther on Trial was an effective play that strives—and occasionally succeeds—in hitting heroic chords most contemporary plays do not try to reach.