Thursday, November 01, 2007

Wooster Group “Hamlet” @ the Public Theater, NYC

It has been several years since I last witnessed a Wooster Group performance, “Poor Theater” at the Performance Garage, which was a show that exploded my being with joy. So I approached last night’s “Hamlet” at New York’s Public Theater a bit of wary of expecting too much. And I did enjoy this take on “Hamlet” but without the ecstasy, it is probably good to have “Poor Theater” out of my system.

I should say first that the Wooster Group is not simply presenting the Bard’s script of “Hamlet” but taking its primary source material from a film version of a 1964 Broadway production of “Hamlet”, starring Richard Burton and directed by John Gielgud. According to the program notes the film was shot from a live performance using 17 camera angles, was edited into a film and then shown for two days in 2000 movie theaters in the US in an attempt to bring theater to the masses. An additional technical note in the program offers a clue into the production, and apparent starting point for their development process…the film was digitally reedited to take the lines of verse “which were spoken freely in the 1964 production” and put them back into iambic pentameter.

This edited version of the film is presented upstage throughout the performance and introduces a choppy, slipping rhythm to the Wooster Group’s production that the actors mimic via a number of onstage reference monitors. The video image is also overlaid with many textural filters that imitate VCR artifacts, give it additional coloration to scenes and reference the medium and language of editing…even as literally as to throw up sections of video that read “unrendered”.

The key point to this production and a distinctive quality of the Wooster Group in general is this attempt have the live performance to mirror the video source material with affected human slippage mixed in for good measure. The actors twitch and rewind as they cross the stage and deliver their lines and even the set is mobile, scooting on wheels to match changing perspectives as the video cuts to a different camera angle. The actors are caught in a web of competing and live demands on their activities as they present the text of the play while also staying close to the video version that is pacing them.

Video cameras on stage also capture the actor’s gestures and remix them into the video strata of the presentation, mostly featuring them on two smaller screens near the wings. It is this video stratum where this performance metaphysically descends and to which characters of the play transcend in death.

Now here is my macro read of things: Wooster Group seems concerned with this cultural moment as defined by experience immersed within electronic media. I imagine a Wooster Group conception of the history of storytelling which progresses from an oral tradition – to a script-based tradition – to one that includes process based/physical research – to now a tradition of performance which is based in electronic media and a mixture of what has come before. If my fancy has any truth to it then Wooster Group choice of doing Hamlet is an interesting one.

By presenting these performances that are sourced in a script, a rehearsal process, and a video record like this archival “Hamlet” the first thing that is in constant flux is the authenticity of the play because the truth is not simply one of these sources but the attempt to juggle all of them. The moments that where the most enthralling in “Poor Theater”, which used a similar conceptual approach to media, were when an actor dynamically found a meaningful place among the various truths sourced in the play.

This “Hamlet” is conceptually interesting to me as it is a weighty play that is known for its struggle around themes of death and being while also containing a notoriously complex and challenging lead role.

Hamlet as a character is neatly reimagined here as not just a psychologically conflicted prince who must struggle with revenging his father’s murder but a character portrayed by an actor attempting to juggle the various media of his environment, while delivering his role and so on.

Also there is the layer of “Hamlet” the play, which is burdened by it significance in the theatrical cannon and the many previous productions not unlike we think of the Mona Lisa today not just as a painting but as a mass produced icon. And like Andy Warhol’s and others commentary on the Mona Lisa, “Hamlet” the play is taken on as whole here also immersed in the tension of a variety of representations and interpretations.

Then there is thematics of death and being which have a unique life in this production as the supernatural world of the undead is all within the media. Hamlets father appears to us by via video. When a character dies they reappear in the video, displaced and disembodied. After the final bloody deaths of the climax the whole production ends in dissolution of static. Throughout the play we are also haunted by the specters of the Broadway production which contain and restrain the actions on the stage, not unlike Hamlet must struggle with the his own history, a death defines not just ones own life but the lives of ones loved ones.

This is all fun but clear to me early on in the evening. As I looked for more I didn’t really find it. My friend suggested that usually Wooster Group uses more varied source material so there just isn’t as much to play off of in this show, which I thought was a feasible comment. If you read the NYTimes review I think you’ll find Ben Brantley got a lot more involved with the source play and the visual effects that were applied to the video, which I found fun, relevant to the pacing of the show but ornamental in themselves.

There are also occasional digressions into other film “Hamlets” including the Kenneth Branagh and a version featuring Bill Murray as Polonius. I also might mention here that this was the first time that I have seen an actor evoke a Mel Gibson-ish delivery…Scott Shepherd was very thorough in his research and includes many Hamlets in his delivery.

I felt that the place where I felt the most let down was in the delivery of the language. The exception being Ari Fliakos’ Claudius is powerfully delivered both physically and vocally, Kate Valk’s Gertrude was rich but her Ophelia was vocally strangely thin and detached, Scott Shepard’s Hamlet was physically sharp but vocally seemed to be smothered at times by the media. To this relationship of the media audio on stage: I think the audio was intended to magnify and be mixed with the live actors so there was some sense of emotional power resonating from the past, but it was a mixed bag. There were certainly times when it was like the performance had a whole voice and there were time it was indistinct or some little audio gag was thrown in that seemed irrelevant.

Unfortunately, beyond the three mentioned above, the rest of the cast didn’t speak in a way that really brought the language alive to me and often stood there dead on their feet. I don’t know what Casey Spooner was doing there or why they inserted his disconnected little vocal interludes. If this were mainstream media I would think that some marketing person was trying to appeal to the younger crowd but since this is “…America’s foremost experimental theater company” I won’t push the Jar-Jar Binks comparisons and chalk it up them sticking to some devising process or another.

Odds and ends: I haven’t seen or read “Hamlet” is sometime so I suspect there might be some more intricate textual stuff that I may have missed. I also wasn’t always clear why they glossed over some scenes. I missed the gravedigger scene and felt like the play took a really rough tack on Polonius for some odd reason. The harsh audio used to return from intermission was cocky and fun. The nurse and Polonius’s walker choreography was some of my favorite stage business, as was how Hamlet removes Polonious’ dead body.

So to wrap up, I came away from “Hamlet” with broader interpretive responses having to do with what I suspect is the Wooster Groups relationship to their performance medium and our cultural times more so than say more personal or insights into the characters or personal emotional resonance. Certainly the Wooster Group’s reconsideration of the Shakespearian staple is full of fun physicality and similarly smart in how it uses the play as a whole to comment on performance but it rarely touched me, it didn’t live up to the vocal demands of the play, nor was I able to pick up on additional commentary on the apparent themes of the play within the actual interplay of the characters. It left me with none of the musty Shakespearian aftertaste that comes from a straight production.

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