| Chicago Reader


Rally Theatre

In 1961 Luther helped revive playwright John Osborne's sagging reputation. But reviving Luther is another matter altogether. Since the play is essentially a complex psychological portrait of the Reformation's premier angry young man, a lot depends on the actor playing Martin Luther. I can see how Albert Finney, who created the role, could have been a sensation. Yet Richard Alpert's performance in the Rally Theatre production is so opaque and monotonous that there's very little to consider. All I'm left with, after two and a half hours of character study, is a composite sketch of a religious rebel, plagued by chronic attacks of self-doubt and constipation, with an affected voice that (ironically enough) cannot speak but only pontificate.

The play, if not the production, is intriguing. Osborne's drama spans Luther's life from the time he gives up the prospect of law school to join the Augustinian order, in 1506, until the excommunicated Luther becomes a father, in 1530. Along the way, Luther wears the hats of scholar, penitent, firebrand, heretic, divine apologist, victim of irregularity, misunderstood son, and loving father. Unfortunately, Alpert wears each of these hats with a uniform and absentminded seriousness.

One thing I'm still trying to figure out is why Osborne chose to focus now and again on Luther's constipation. I can only imagine that he meant to make some sort of parallel with, I don't know, the way that Luther's intense exegesis of scripture would build to a point of doctrinal blockage that could only be evacuated by faith. Which, by extrapolation, would make the Reformation the great release from 15 centuries of impacted dogma imposed by the Roman Catholic church. Of course, I'm only speculating, but what else can I do when a production neither interprets nor offers me the tools of interpretation?

There are other interesting fragments of the Luther puzzle. Luther was an epileptic, but you wouldn't know it unless you read the program. Come to think of it, one of the early scenes may very well have featured an epileptic seizure, judging from the flashing lights and science fiction music, but at the time I thought it was another crippling attack of constipation. Also of some interest is Luther's enigmatic relationship with his mentor, John Von Staupitz (played by Roy McCall). McCall's character too seems to suffer from some deep-seated distress, either spiritual or urinary, which gives him a pained expression and makes it hard for him to sit still when he offers Luther his fatherly advice. And totally overlooked in this production are the strange implications of Luther's marriage to a former nun.

Still, the shortcomings of this show can't be blamed solely on the cast. Luther lacks context, which is the responsibility of director Richard Stanton. But Stanton has not even settled on a coherent production style. The play starts out all artsy and psychodrama, complete with mood music loud enough to obscure the dialogue, then turns as austere as socialist realism, briefly veers into low comedy, and finally lapses into sententious melodrama. Of all these disjointed directorial conceits, the low comedy is the worst. Perhaps Stanton felt the show was lagging, which it was, but I think he took a wrong turn into vaudeville with a wholly unmotivated scene involving a petulant Pope Leo X (Robert Torchia) and his impish scribe (played by Robert Bouwman as a comic homosexual). After this bit of hilarity, the play's credibility is irretrievably sacrificed, and it stumbles without vision or a sense of history toward nowhere in particular. Against such a background, it's no wonder that Alpert's portrait of Luther should be so uncertain.

Anyway, here's how our story--so easily lost--turns out. Luther is excommunicated at the Diet of Worms in 1521, the Reformation in Germany picks up momentum, and the peasants revolt and are slaughtered. Luther, however, doesn't support this "peasants' war," and he even gives a speech justifying God's nonintervention in war. This raises another interesting point, since Luther might well have been speaking for himself here, rather than God, but this point, like so many others, is lost in production.

Only one actor covers his ass in this show--William Cole. Cole plays Cardinal Cajetan, a papal legate sent to read Luther the riot act. Cole doesn't quite look the part, but he has the attitude--a certain formal yet frank approach, suggesting a man of power who doesn't need to entertain a dialogue. Cole even manages to give Cajetan an element of fatalism, as if the cardinal knew all along that Luther would not recant. Cole not only distinguishes himself, but he lends his scene the glimmer of a drama. It's not the drama of history, or of religion. Maybe it's the drama of power, and Cole somehow conveys where Cajetan and Luther fit in a complex power structure.

But Cole's performance is only one stake in the ground for a tent that's flapping in the wind. Luther is an interior drama, not of world events so much as of the vision of the man who shaped those events. And without that vision, or the shades of light and darkness in the mind that formed that vision, you don't have much of a drama.

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