There was a moment in rehearsal for Wittenberg when the soul-selling character of the fictional Dr. Faust, played by Jim Helsinger in a Groucho Marx—inspired take, picks up a guitar and starts to really rock. That's when Eric Hissom, playing the idealogically opposite role — Martin Luther, of Protestant Reformation fame — connected with his longtime friend and collaborator on both a personal and professional level.
"A lot of people don't know that Jim plays the guitar," says Hissom, a brilliant actor and comedian, and a veritable chameleon who has played the guitar himself in more than a few of Orlando Shakespeare Theater's productions over the years. "Jim is a fine rock & roll player," he adds, punctuating his words with air-guitar licks.
When Hissom saw his buddy onstage rocking out to "Addicted to Love" but singing his own lyrics, which speak to the medieval times in which Wittenberg is set, it was an a-ha! moment. The role does indeed offer a rare glimpse into Helsinger the man.
In real life Helsinger is better known as the aloof and somewhat intimidating "Lord Jim" at Orlando Shakespeare Theater, where he rules as artistic director, a position he's had seemingly forever. He hasn't performed onstage for five years, not since his sword-swinging lead in OST's Cyrano de Bergerac. Add into the equation the fact that he and Hissom haven't shared the stage for 10 years (The Trial of Oscar Wilde), and that Wittenberg is a cornerstone of OST's annual Playfest bill.
The pressure is on for these creative brothers, and that's the way they like it. They met under similar circumstances in 1981, when they were students at Miami University of Ohio (as was Patrick Flick, currently the director of new play development at OSF, a position formerly held by Hissom).
"Eric was a preacher's son; he didn't smoke, didn't drink — not until he met me," Helsinger says with pride, though clearly both are victims of the corruption. "He was super-duper funny, and I like funny."
When the two were tasked with improvising a death scene, they created a montage of death scenes, and a creative team was born. Their collaborations have been many and stellar; a high point was Hissom's turn in 1998 as the tortured doctor in Helsinger's original one-man play Frankenstein, the Modern Prometheus. They've crawled into dark corners of the human mind together many times looking for inspiration and insight, often while intoxicated.
While rehearsing Wittenberg, Helsinger was taken aback when he saw his friend go deep into the character of the history-changing monk; Luther may have been confused, but he stood on a solid rock of belief. "That's Eric," Helsinger says. "He really is a man of faith."
Their personal history couldn't have prepared them better for their roles. The new play, by David Davalos, relies on clever sparring between two good friends: Faust's man of appetites versus Luther's man of faith. After a few drinks, the two question everything, including the existence of God.
The title of the play is a reference to the university in Germany, a hive of intellectual controversy — "The earth is round?" — in 1511 at the dawn of the age of Enlightenment. The duo's chemistry alone should translate into creative gold. At Playfest, however, it's all about the words. And Hissom says the script is "very funny, very intense, very emotional. We're talking about big ideas in a clever, clever way, but it's funny."
It's an intellectual bit of vaudeville, if you will. It's apropos that Davalos' original Wittenberg has been changed so much in the course of the new play's development at OST — a character was even dropped — that it's a whole different work.
"Davolos is a bit of an enigma," Helsinger says. "He does not try and reduce everything down to morals." The most direction the playwright offers in the endless religion-versus-science debate, he adds, is to nurture the notion that "questions are the answer." It's a perfect time in history to take that firstname.lastname@example.org