By John Quinn
Review: ‘Hamlet Machine Hamlet’
Oedipus wrecks and other psych cases At ZeitGeist
When different art forms can share a common home, the experience for their patrons is that much richer. And the ZeitGeist Gallery and Performance Venue is one funky home. The sign at the door says, “Detroit’s Outsider Gallery,” a tribute to the progressive works on its walls and on its stage. It sits just on the edge of downtown, and on the cutting edge of culture. And there’s a bar! Now THAT’S progressive!
For her Detroit directorial debut, Jennifer George presents her fusion of texts, “Hamlet Machine Hamlet.” The first “Hamlet” in the title is “Hamlet Machine,” by post-modernist playwright and poet Heiner Muller, who directed it for the silver screen in 1977. The second “Hamlet,” though, is all Bill Shakespeare.
Far be it for ZeitGeist to mount a conventional “Hamlet;” this isn’t the Shakespeare you remember from Literature 351. The Elizabethan classic is a feast for eye and ear, but George has deftly cut away the fat, so to speak, to give a lean and raw interpretation. Add the post-Freudian sensibility of Muller’s sexual imagery, and you’ve got a whole new look at The Melancholy Dane and his dysfunctional court.
It is common to interpret the lead character as a calculating man feigning insanity to achieve his vengeance. In this riveting performance by Chris Korte, there’s no fooling – this Hamlet is one sick puppy.
It’s a given that Hamlet is obsessed with his mother’s “infidelity” to his dead father, since she is now married to her brother-in-law. George takes this in a whole direction with the help of Muller’s text, and perhaps the best summation for her adaptation is his line, “A mother’s womb is not a one-way street.”
The opening finds this Hamlet practically in fetal position from his wretchedness, and he’s not going to get any better. A trembling, petulant child, his real obsession is his dead father, played by James Mio in ghostly makeup. Mio presides over the action (and Hamlet’s tormented psyche) from behind the Plexiglas arras and gives us focus to his son’s problem. Hamlet is not the man his father was, unworthy of kingship, unworthy of his mother – and he knows it.
To make matters worse, the insanity seems to be catching.
Rather than a slow slide into madness, Sara Galloway’s Ophelia is nuts from the get-go, sexually frustrated and apparently scared of Hamlet. By the time she performs a classic bump-and-grind striptease (I warned you this was not the “Hamlet” you remember) you understand what drives her to her final act of desperation.
Gordon’s staging is a shadowy affair of pale characters entering and exiting – are they really there, or merely more ghosts touching on Hamlet’s unstable consciousness? Was I “spooked” because I saw it Halloween night, or will this production be as unsettling every time? I’m betting on the latter.
“Hamlet Machine Hamlet” Presented Friday through Sunday at Zeitgeist Gallery and Performance Venue, 2661 Michigan Ave., Detroit, through Nov. 23. Tickets: $15. 313-965-9192. www.zeitgeistdetroit.org.
The Bottom Line: An original and illuminating take on a familiar story, this is not for the culturally illiterate; if CliffsNotes got you through English Lit, go to the rear of the class.
Learning your lessons at Planet Ant
The political malaise that gripped Germany between the great wars gave birth to rebellion in the arts. Among the important figures to rise in the Berlin theater was poet and playwright Bertolt Brecht, father of such staples of university theater departments as “Mother Courage and Her Children” and “The Good Person of Szechwan.” Brecht and his colleagues were busily inventing new theories of the arts and how they relate to life, liberally borrowing ideas from the work of Karl Marx.
In his quest to reform the theater, Brecht developed the “lesson play,” “lehrstucke” in German. These short pieces can be called “didactic,” but not in the negative sense that that word has taken on. The artists at Planet Ant prefer we use the definition, “intended to convey instruction and information as well as pleasure and entertainment.”
Brecht’s productions were a turn away from the classic theater and its appeal to the emotions: He didn’t want his audience to feel emotions; he wanted them to think.
If the genesis of Western drama is the morality plays of the medieval church, though, the revelation is not that theater can instruct, but that instruction can be entertaining (take that, Mrs. Wardo, you nightmare of a sixth-grade teacher!).
Indeed, the Lehrstucke resemble the morality plays in that the actors are portraying, with the help of masks, archetypes – not Virtues and Vices, but The Oppressor and The Oppressed, The Innocent and The Sage. The lessons to be learned, though, are not moral but political.
As realized by Planet Ant, “Lehrstucke” is an olio of song and story, poetry and puppetry. There’s even place for a film.
As directed by Eric W. Maher, the cast is as untheatrical as you can imagine – warming up before the show on the tennis court of a playing area (long and narrow; audience along both sides – this is a small storefront, after all). The costumes are coveralls. Props and masks hang on walls and coat trees. They have ably assisted Brecht in one of the playwright’s goals, the stripping away of theatrical artifice so that dramatic truth is revealed. Yet the thoughtful, studied staging is as captivating as a ritual.
While Brecht writes to universal themes – the dignity of man and the worth of the individual, among others – there remains about this work a musty air of Marxist sensibility.
The pieces are peppered with allusions to class warfare and the overthrow of established custom. Is this only a period piece? While the recurring theme, “Change the World, It Needs It” is as vital now as it was when the plays were new, Brecht isn’t teaching us anything we don’t already know. Nor can he offer solutions more substantial than, “Love your neighbor,” or “Give peace a chance.”
In raising our consciousness “Lehrstucke” is successful; as a road map to a better world, it’s lacking.
“Lehrstucke” Presented Friday through Sunday at Planet Ant, 2357 Caniff, Hamtramck, through Nov. 23. Tickets: $15. 313-365-4948. www.planetant.com.
The Bottom Line: An example of form over content, the performance is more interesting than the material.