Hamlets: Past, Prologue and Post-Modern

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This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.

Last fall, I saw a Barcelona theater company perform a riff on Shakespeare's Hamlet titled European House. About an hour long—with no dialogue—it took place in the home of a wealthy, continental family. As the language-free action unfolded, it became clear that this unspoken drama was a modern-day prologue to Shakespeare's classic tragedy.

I mention this because later this month, The Wooster Group, the venerable avant-garde troupe from New York will be in Los Angeles to perform their recent riff on Hamlet (which incidentally was co-financed by a different Barcelona theater organization).

Whereas European House served as a sort of overture to Hamlet, the Wooster Group aims to re-create—or more accurately, re-mix—a production of Hamlet from 1964 starring Richard Burton.

Director Elizabeth LeCompte and her troupe have taken the video of that 1964 Broadway production (which was briefly shown in movie theaters later that same year) and re-edited it. Not only have they altered the video to make the actors speak in iambic pentameter (instead of the film's original free verse) they also digitally removed the images of the original performers so that the Wooster Group actors seem to take their place in the video projected behind them.

It's a challenging work that will no doubt look familiar to people who saw the Wooster Group's last LA tour, where the company "erased" a dance by choreographer William Forsythe.

hamlet-valk.jpg The Wooster's Hamlet features music by Fischerspooner and showcases the troupe's standard stagecraft (including video screens, medical chairs, and lots of metal) as well as their longtime actors—most notably Kate Valk who is mesmerizing as both Ophelia and Gertrude.

Scott Shepard acquits himself as Hamlet, but the whole concept of the piece is that he is aping Richard Burton. At first, one applauds Shepard (and his director) as he meticulously recreates Burton's movement and speech patterns. But soon you have to wonder: is this all there is?

hamlet-other.jpg Unfortunately, the answer is yes. As a work of theatrical excavation and recreation, the production is fascinating. But really, for most theatergoers, it plays like a sort of You-Tube mash of Hamlet. Bits of Kenneth Branagh and Michael Almereyda's filmed Hamlet's are also spliced into the mix—but don't really inform anything that's taking place on stage.

Like a lot of the pastiche that one finds on YouTube, a little cleverness can seem brilliant for a short while…but it's hard to sustain. Pretty soon you click to the next thing.

Watching the Wooster Group today, one has to credit them—they've been deconstructing culture for over 30 years. LeCompte and her crew were remixing back before the era of DJ's, sampling, and YouTube—and it's only in the last decade that popular culture has really caught up to what was one truly avant-garde.

hamlet-end.jpg This doesn't mean The Wooster Group is passé. There are few theaters in Los Angeles or New York that push the boundaries of theater in the way that they do. But in terms of breathing new life into an old play, this Hamlet doesn't advance the theories and techniques that the Wooster Group is famous for. Part of the reason that wordless, Spanish production I mentioned earlier made such an impression was that it was so concise; the Wooster's Hamlet is their longest production yet—at almost three hours.

Even when dazzlingly deconstructed, brevity, to quote Polonius, remains the soul of wit.

The Wooster Group's Hamlet runs at REDCAT through February 10.

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.

Photos: Paula Court