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A CurtainUp Review
By Les Gutman
When we last came upon Richard Schechner and his East Coast Artists, it was for his excellent, time traveling Three Sisters at LaMama (CurtainUp's review linked below). Time travel is still on Schechner's mind, but it is now far less linear. Schechner presents a crazy-quilt view of this great tragedy that revels in its mysteries, and assumes nothing. Purists may have trouble staying in their seats, but the rest of us will find much to appreciate and enjoy.
A threshold issue involving Hamlet has always been pinpointing precisely what Shakespeare wrote. The first published version (the first or "bad" quarto) appeared in 1603, followed by a second quarto in 1604. The familiar version (the first folio of 1623) is formed mostly from the latter, edited and augmented from prompt books. Schechner commences his disorientation by interweaving the 1603 and 1623 versions at will. The product, the result of months of rehearsal and manipulation, is a surprising, confounding blend of the familiar with the unexpected. As Schechner observes, "who is to say if it will be ever set right?"
Hamlet is of course replete with lines and expressions well known in the English-speaking world. So much so that it is easy to listen to it without really hearing it. When we hear the familiar bleed into the unanticipated, we are suddenly forced to reëxamine the play in a sometimes coarser state. While Schechner does no frontal assault on the story-telling, the way in which we see and hear can be jolting. Familiar names have a different ring and tone: Gertrude goes by her earlier name, Gertred; Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Rossencraft and Guilderstone. Familiar ideas are supplanted by more explicitly provocative insinuations: e.g., Ophelia (or, Ofelia) as incest victim.
There have been so many takes on the Bard's plays, reimagining them in alternate times and places, that we have come to expect it. But here we have an amalgam of images untethered to any single time and place. A conservative Claudius (Gerry Bamman) appears in a dapper business suit, but speaks to a bumbling white-bearded Polonius (Omar Shapli) in a long coat. Gertred (Marissa Copeland) is Marilyn Monroe, while Ofelia (Paula Cole), in red patent leather, pigtails and gingham conjures up something approximating Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz. The junk-food-addicted Rossencraft (Michele Minnick) and Guilderstone (Debora Cahn) -- both splendid -- are not even homo sapiens, emanating instead from the genus Rattus, tails and all. And then there is the fair-to-middling Hamlet (George Hannah), affecting multiple personalities ranging from bald-pated street tough, to pot-smoking, dread-locked Carribean, to a red voile-clad epicene. Some silliness, yes, but somehow, when a crowd of Players gather around as he delivers his "what a piece of work..." speech, the definitive Dane materializes.
This is also a production filled with dance and music, its pastiche of everything from tribal to folk to jazz underscoring its temporal randomness. On a platform to stage left, we often find Liz Claire, composer, choreographer and "Woman with Violin," evoking stylized Noh theater influences, while Rebecca Ortese wanders about emoting and singing vocal punctuation (the remains, perhaps, of a chorus that program notes indicate was eliminated during rehearsals).
Perhaps the most impressive shift here is in the play's fulcrum. Whereas Hamlet typically revolves around the mind of the title character, Schechner has turned to his book-toting best friend Horatio (an especially outstanding David Letwin) to serve as guide. This Horatio breaks the fourth wall, addressing the audience, often in freeze-frame. Every time he appears, he's reading a different version of the play. It's a brash -- some would say insolent -- concept, but a remarkably effective and poignant vehicle, around which the play's wildly variant icons coalesce.
The set design is simple but extremely inventive, and aided by very good lighting work. With broad strokes and timelessness, it successfully positions the action without ever commenting on it. Costume design is equally effective, from the opposite perspective: it's attention to detail is crucial in establishing the jagged timeline.
As with any quilt, we must try to comprehend the whole rather than focusing on individual patches. Going down the latter path reveals some truly inspired notions as well as some equally banal ideas. Not surprisingly, it also highlights some exceptionally fine acting as well as some that could be better. But the whole is fascinating, interesting and thematically sound. For jaded Shakespeare-philes who think they've seen everything, think again.
LINKS TO REVIEWS MENTIONED ABOVE
CurtainUp review of Three Sisters