Guilty or Innocent? Martin Luther on Trial on Times Square

Culture Watch
tags: theater review, Martin Luther on Trial


Somewhere between heaven, hell and Times Square, they are putting Martin Luther, the founder of the Lutheran Church in the early 1500s, on trial for blasphemy with eternal damnation the punishment if the truculent monk is found guilty. St. Peter himself is the judge and jury, Luther’s wife Katarina is the wily defense attorney and Lucifer is the overpowering and savage prosecutor. In the rather interesting new play Martin Luther on Trial, that opened Wednesday at the Pearl Theater, 555 West 42d Street, New York, New York,  they are trying to make sense of Luther as well as condemn or exonerate him.

In everything that he said and wrote and in the 95 theses he famously nailed to the door of a church in his native Wittenberg, Germany, in 1517, did he blaspheme God? Then again, his wife argues, what is blasphemy of God? Did Luther’s well documented and endlessly debated war against the Catholic Church make him a villain or a saint?

There are dozens of witnesses in the play, some on the stand for a long time and some for a few seconds. They are a strange array of witnesses, ranging from Pope Francis to Martin Luther King Jr. to Adolf Hitler. They try to explain how Luther’s teachings were not just the foundation of a new Protestant sect, and the backbone of the whole Protestant Reformation, but offered a new nationalism for Germany that Hitler later exploited in his rants.

Luther, dressed in his traditional brown Monk’s clothing and closely cropped hair, enters and leaves the stage at various times to play out scenes with others that provide the basis of his defense. His visits to the handsome courtroom stage also give the audience a chance to see that in everything he did he seemed to be tortured. He agonizes over his break with the Catholic Church, bitterly defends his 95 theses and insists, throughout the play, that there is no one true church. There is, he argues vehemently, room for numerous churches and people must decide what religion is best for them. The play gives you Luther warts and all, especially a look at the anti-Semitism in his later life.

St. Peter has traveled from heaven to run the trial as judge. With a nicely combed head of hair and flowing white beard, he looks like he could be one of the Bee Gees. He is fair in running the trial, even though he cheers on Katarina (Mrs. Luther) from time to time.

The play’s strength is that it offers a sometimes loving and sometimes chilling, but all the time fascinating portrait of Luther, one of history’s most dynamic and controversial religious leaders.

And it offers a revealing look at the Catholic Church in the 16th century, when mercenary Popes ruled in Rome. Luther’s greatest sin, the church argued loudly, was that he criticized Pope Leo X for forgiving sinners if they donated enough money to the church so that the Pope could build St. Peter’s Cathedral.

Most importantly, the play gives you a nice look at Luther the man. Example: he loves his wife a little because she is loyal to him, a little because she supports him and a little because she does a nice job of caring for him and running the household. But, he says, he loves her a whole lot because she knows how to brew beer (can you imagine them today? They could make millions with Martin Luther Ale, imported).

You see him meeting and arguing with Jewish leaders, who do not understand his disapproval of them. He debates men about life and theology, talks about his books and feelings and his desperate need to split from the church and form his own religion.

The play is produced by a religious group, the Fellowship for Performing Arts, and there is a lot of religion in the play, but the drama does not try to hit you over the head with sanctity or make you support or denounce any church. Playwrights Chris Cragin-Day and Max McLean have done a nice job of weaving together the story of Luther the man and the story of his religious bouts without falling into a pit of religious argument.

It is an interesting play and flows nicely, but it does not have the traditional power punch of a drama. You keep waiting for some catastrophic scene, but there is none. What you do get in this man in the crossfire story is intriguing, though.

There is a lot of history. This is an historical tour de force. Naturally, you learn much about Luther and his Church, but you learn an immense amount of information on the government of Germany at that time, politics, feuds between local religious venues and Rome, Pope Leo, the building of St. Peter’s and, not to forget , beer brewing.

Director Michael Parva has done a good job of letting Luther and others play out scenes within the trial structure of the play and in letting the Devil have as much say as St. Peter in the story. Parva gets fine performances from Fletcher McTaggart as Luther, Paul Schoeffler as the Devil, Kersti Bryan as Mrs. Luther and John Michalski as St. Peter. Mark Boyett and Jamil A.C. Mangan play the witnesses (Boyett is terrific as Hitler, as loathable now as when he was alive).

Oh, what Judge Judy would have done with this trial!

PRODUCTION: The play is produced by the Fellowship for Performing Arts. Scenic Design: Kelly James Tighe, Costumes: Nicole Wee, Lighting: Geoffrey D. Fishburn, Sound: Quentin Chiappetta. The play is directed by Michael Parva. It runs through January 29, 2017.

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