Friday, February 08, 2008

Ghost-Written — a review of the Wooster Group's *Hamlet* in L.A.

review of the Wooster Group’s Hamlet
by Michael Bowen, 8 Feb 08


PLAY REVIEW With an audio-video onslaught, the Wooster Group defamiliarizes Hamlet and dethrones its text, revealing the limits of what any of us can do MICHAEL BOWEN

A silver and black techno-set with video screens flickering with static. Live performers gyrate in sync with grainy, 40-years-ago actors emoting on the giant video wall behind them. The Wooster Group’s Hamlet (at Redcat through Feb. 10) conjures ghosts and dismembers our familiarity with Shakespeare’s tragedy, and it isn’t for beginners.
The Richard Burton-John Gielgud television-film of 1964 is this production’s master image. Actors scuttle forwards and backwards across the stage like stop-action crabs, approximating the film’s close-ups and wide shots. Director Elizabeth LeCompte’s blaring-music, stuttering-video direction humbles viewers into realizing the many, many ways in which wrongs may be almost, not quite, set right.
From tinkling jokes to frightening thunder, Wooster’s sextet of sound and video engineers sample other screen versions of Hamlet (Bill Murray and Charlton Heston are summoned to this production’s seance, as is Gielgud himself) as well as any DJ aiming at an immersive experience.
Wooster’s rendition is electrifying, compelling us to see how acting and technology mediate our responses to Hamlet’s conundrum about the impossibility of just revenge. Yet tying this production so exactly to the blocking, gestures and histrionics of the Burton-Gielgud version risks making irony a dead end. On the one hand, it’s haunting to see Scott Shepherd mimic Burton’s gesticulations, as if all the other ghostly Hamlets were standing behind the screen and sawing the air in a line extending all the way back to Richard Burbage. On the other hand, continual irony — look at the actors mirroring their forebears — runs the risk of weariness.

The Wooster Hamlet has its flaws — a baby doll Ophelia, an effeminate Laertes, emotional high points like the Hamlet-Horatio friendship underplayed with world-weary resignation. But LeCompte directs with insight. She prunes the text and lays bare her devices by having Hamlet direct the omissions (“skip this next bit”) as the video wall flutters in fast-forward. During the play within a play, Hamlet himself speaks the victim’s and revenger’s lines, doubling the vengeful intent. After overhearing Claudius’ confession, Hamlet removes his sword, with Claudius reacting as if he’d seen a ghost; at the end of the closet scene, Gertrude’s kiss doesn’t seem like incestuous desire for her son so much as a desperate plea for affection. Laertes’ lament for his dead sister, all screamo into a microphone, overlaps with Hamlet’s in the graveyard ruminating on death: Yorick’s and his own.
Defamiliarizing a play so obsessively sometimes affects the head without hitting the gut — and the Wooster approach is so intent on distancing us from naturalistic acting that sometimes it distances us from natural emotion.
Shepherd’s Hamlet, under LeCompte’s direction, doesn’t seem bent on discovering the right way to gain revenge, or on how to do a good thing in a world gone wrong. Instead, he’s a prowling, weary, robotic man, all brittle intellect, trying to solve a puzzle for which he’s not sure he has any passion left. It’s a Hamlet for our age, unlike its stage forebears, predestined to be smeared away by time.


At February 08, 2008 10:38 PM , Blogger Bobo the Theater Ho said...

Apparently, after years of trying to locate it, the Burton-Gielgud '64 Hamlet, filmed live in New York by 17 cameras, in grainy black and white, is now simply available on Netflix.
In my group of five, two loved it, two hated it, one was kind of neutral but thought it was set in an insane asylum.
Just saw the U.S. premiere of Athol Fugard's Victory. 3 actors, just 78-seat house. Premise: Fugard himself was repeatedly burglarized by some of the "coloreds" who had worked as servants in his house. Too much exposition, too many speeches of self-revelation, but he makes you care about the mess that is South Africa, even post-apartheid. Thrilled to congratulate the Zimbabwean actress afterwards.
On Saturday, we're having acting class, then an emo rock musical at the Kirk Douglas Theater: rock screaming while everybody dances in coonskin caps; check it on YouTube. Also another class today on online resources for artsy journo types.
and a Tim Robbins play tomorrow called Carnage.


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