Friday, October 14, 2011


Uh ... line?

Submitted, for your consideration, a production of Hamlet by the Wooster Group—a group famed for experimental theater. This production at the Ringling International Arts Festival was experimental indeed.

Imagine—in some scenario out of Rossum’s Universal Robots or Blade Runner, that scientists succeed in engineering synthetic people—androids, for want of a better term—and that, as predicted in a thousand SF books and movies, these synthetic servants erupt in a revolution and kill all the humans. Hundreds of years later, the androids look back on the creators they murdered with regret. They feel incomplete, you see. They want to be like us, but they’re not quite like us; their emotions don’t have the full range. So, the androids desperately read our literature and watch our movies and try to figure out what it means to be human. In one android project, they stumble on the record of John Gielgud’s 1964 production of Hamlet starring Richard Burton. They analyze the movie frame by frame. They chart its motions on a Cartesian axis. Then they imitate it. Religiously. Trying—through brute force analysis—to make some emotional connection to the world Shakespeare created. A connection to emotions they just don’t feel.

The Wooster Group's production of Hamlet is like that.

Very much like that.

A performance of Hamlet by androids, directed by Max Headroom.

MAX: Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounc'd it to you, trip -- trippingly--
t-t-t-trippingly on the tongue!

Android Shakespeare. That may sound glib, kids. I don't mean to be be glib. That's how it struck me at the time. I honestly felt like I was hundreds of years in the future watching synthetic humans performing Shakespeare.

Hey, that's entertainment, right?

Explaining the logic behind this production in merely human terms ain't easy, but I'll try. As far as I understand it, somebody filmed the original 1964 performance of Hamlet. This film (much like heavyweight boxing championships and opera today) was subsequently screened at theaters around the country. They called it "Theatrofilm" or sumpin. The Wooster Group took the original "Theatrofilm" record of this performance and reverse-engineered it. (This concept was director Elizabeth LeCompte's brainchild.) Somebody in the editing room chopped up the raw original film in Final Cut Pro; if he thought there was a leaden pause, out it went. Then (with Shepherd in Burton's role) the modern-day Wooster Group actors slavishly recreated the 1964 performance. More accurately: they slavishly recreated Shepherd's edited version of the performance. So, if there's a jump in the dialog or the actors fast-forward and backtrack, the real-life actors do exactly that. And that's what you see on stage.

You see the original film, in a big screen behind the performance. The Wooster Group actors perform, with a minimal set on wheels that stagehands roll around to mimic the set in the original film. On top of that, there are two widescreen computer displays revealing either live actors or dead ones. Occasionally, the big screen behind it all turns into a big Cartesian grid. Or a blue screen labelled with the phrase, "Not rendered."

Hamlet said "I know not seems," but this is all about seeming. The film behind the production has been doctored. The characters you see drop out of their scenes like ghosts. The final sword fight shows merely two disembodied swords--and two rectangles in place of the empty actors.

The real life actors on stage heroically imitate the doctored film. It's the dead opposite of method acting. It's acting nailed down to externals. There's not a drop of spontaneity. The real actors are slaves of the body position, timing and intonation of the actors in the doctored film.

This may seem like a gimmick. Nay, it is. It's a gimmick.

The gimmick slaps you in the face and makes you think about things you usually don't think about. The production is a box within a box within a box: The Wooster Group's recreation of Gielgud and Burton's interpretation of Shakespeare's original text of Hamlet. The Wooster Group rubs your face in the artificiality or it all. It literally shows you the Cartesian grid that Shakespeare's words have been graphed on.

The effect this had on me? I can't speak for the rest of the audience, but all this post-modern artificiality made my brain want to grab onto the PLAY. Throughout all the graphs and hip-hop stuttering, I clung to the rock of who the characters were, what happened and why it mattered. Bits of business aside, I came out of this experience with a deeper understanding of Hamlet.

Humans and androids alike will enjoy this play.

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