Martin Luther on Trial

The Fellowship for Performing Arts has just produced a play called Martin Luther on Trial, by Chris Cragin-Day and Max McLean, at The Pearl Theatre. It puts Martin Luther in historical, personal and, most importantly, ideological context. It’s a sort of courtroom drama. The Devil himself is prosecuting Luther for “the unforgivable sin”. Luther’s wife, Katie Von Bora (“a runaway nun”), is his defender. “The unforgivable sin” is defined variously, but essentially as “telling God I don’t need you.” The script presents Luther in a non-linear way, into his later life, when he states “I am orthodox.”

The witnesses in this strange case come from a range of personalities and periods: Hitler; Freud; Martin Luther King; Pope Francis. And there are others, like Kierkegaard, Nietzsche and even The Brothers Grimm, whom we never see. The officiating judge is St. Peter.

The trial takes place in the Afterlife – neither heaven nor hell nor Earth. But from time to time the lights isolate a downstage area and we meet Luther in his life. The most extended of these scenes is a discussion with a Rabbi, rather too prolonged. What’s clear is that Luther loves to debate.

We also see a courtship scene with Katie Von Bora. And there’s an interesting scene between Luther and the Devil. Luther’s hand trembles when they play chess. And of course, they debate.

The concept is enormously creative, a hyper-intellectual fantasy in the genre of Shaw’s Don Juan in Hell (from Man and Superman). And it’s very well executed. It’s directed by Michael Parva, who keeps an eloquent tone to the whole thing, a sort of realism within a surreal moment.

In a moment repeated intermittently, Luther drives a nail, affixing the famous 95 theses into that church door in 1517. The hammer stroke’s thud resonates as if echoing across the centuries. And Parva gives great attention to detail, as when the prosecuting devil and defending wife take notes throughout the trial.

Fletcher McTaggart’s performance as Martin Luther is terrific, with a strong and precise internal life. He registers thoughts as if they were physical sensations. He has a squinting, quizzical expression, and he leans into his debate partners. Paul Schoeffler, as The Devil, gives a great performance as well, more theatrical and externalized. His final speech is a powerful display of acting technique. It’s interrupted by Luther, who resumes his chess game with the Devil, and in the final action of the play the Devil himself experiences a revelation.

Kersti Bryan is successful as Katie Von Bora, but rather tense throughout. Von Bora is an active ally of Luther in their movement. “What in God’s name are we doing? This is not our Reformation!” she says late in the play.

John Michalski is suitably judicial as St. Peter. Mark Boyett and Jamil A.C. Mangan, in multiple roles, also give us some very nice work.

The set, by Kelly James Tighe, and the costumes, by Nicole Wee, are all handsome. The effective lighting if by Geoffrey D. Fishburn.

The ideological point of the whole thing is obscured by some over-writing. Pope Francis, unfortunately, is made to look like a fool – perhaps because he’s the only living witness. But Martin Luther on Trial is a unique accomplishment. Fellowship for Performing Arts creates theater with a Christian perspective, and it’s good to see that its work is so robust.

Steve Capra
December 2016

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