NEA/USC theater-writing fellowship. The LA weather is perfect (I wish
I could send you pictures and a jar of the unusually smog-free air!),
the classes and lectures informative, and the hotel bed I'm writing
from is essentially a queen-sized cloud. Things are going well.
Best of all, the fellowship has allowed me to witness professional
theater every night (we have to have something to write about, after
all). On Thursday we trekked it over to Redcat Theater for the
Wooster Group's Hamlet, and wow. Wooster's been going at it since the
'60s under Elizabeth LeCompte, doing wild multimedia shit, but this is
their first classical theater production. (But trust me, there was
nothing classical about it.)
Here are my thoughts from my first real assignment:
Well, fuck me, Hamlet. If you've ever wondered what the billionth
production of Shakespeare's greatest tragedy could possibly bring to
the table — why do it again? — then the Wooster Group's interpretation
is for you. If you haven't, it's still for you, but I suggest a little
pre-show homework. Madness in great ones must not unwatched go.
In the case that you've never witnessed a traditional portrayal of
Hamlet, pick up a copy of Franco Zeffirelli's 1990 film version and
treat yourself. Ninety-nine times. Got that out of the way? Good. It's
been done like that on stage again and again, and quite frankly I'm of
the opinion that if we can't do something mind-blowing with "the
canon," then the time-and-again performances should be kept in a
museum, where they belong, not in the theater.
Imagine a Hamlet with elements of an indie-rock concert and Rocky
Horror, where your eyes never want for another place to look, and
where your brain cannot stop for sifting through layers and layers of
meaning. The Wooster Group's deeply cognitive production of Hamlet
exploits its play-within-a-play signature feature by adding a third
dimension, the screen. In doing so, their Hamlet becomes a commentary on
the art of remaking. What new thing can be brought to a very old
story? How can it be made relevant?
So many contemporary interpretations of Shakespeare's plays have
addressed these quandaries by merely resetting them in the present, or
if not that, then turn-of-the-century Europe, as if those stylish
tactics do anything but confuse us most times. By presenting a
mechanical, dance-like rendering of Hamlet — one which needs the stage
—before Richard Burton's 1964 production (and momentarily, before a
few recent film versions), the Wooster Group acknowledges all of the
Hamlets which came before, all of the ghosts that haunt, all of the
baggage the theater lover, the actor — or even fervent movie watcher —
must drag with him or herself to a performance. So, yes, there is a
certain audience in mind here, but that does not mean, with a little
research, anyone can't enjoy Wooster's Hamlet. That is, anyone who
doesn't mind putting forth a little effort to be entertained. It is
well worth it.
So the Wooster Group giveth, but what have they taken away? Emotion,
surely. The bodies of the players mimic not only their onscreen
counterparts as closely as possible — they are actors playing actors
reenacting a filmed play — but they jerk musically when the film jumps
(the rhythmic nature of their movement segues beautifully into songs
by Fischerspooner), consistently canceling our opportunities to
The illusion of false reality has been stripped away to great effect:
Everything is exposed — lights, wires, mic transmitters. As a result,
we are able to understand anew words we've heard ad nauseam. Hamlet's
line about theater-makers holding a mirror up to nature is made deeply
ironic. Wooster's Hamlet is exactly what Claudius accuses Laertes of
being: but a painting of sorrow, a face without much of a heart.
That heartlessness would be the real tragedy of Wooster's Hamlet, if
not for its big, juicy brain — a vital organ theater should be asking
us to utilize now and then.
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