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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
To date Wooster shows have been seen mostly at the group's small off-off-Broadway digs, the Performing Garage on the Lower East Side and, more recently, at the larger St. Ann's Warehouse in Brooklyn. I can't think of a better place to introduce this Woosterized Hamlet to a more age-diverse, mainstream as well as hip, young audience than the Public Theater. And indeed, at the press preview I attended, the Newman Theater was packed not only with the under thirty demographic but with plenty of not so young uptown and suburban audiences eager to see this latest spin on the Bard's melancholy Dane and his duplicitous mother and uncle.
Wooster newbies should be aware, however, that the term Woosterized doesn't just refer to the group's extensive use of video in their work, or a new cutting edge adaptation of Hamlet. This is a case of Shakespeare's great work being harnessed to the Group's intentions. In other words, anyone who buys a ticket expecting to see Shakespeare's Hamlet, is likely to be disappointed for what you get here is the Wooster's Hamlet, with the Bard's play more or less a background device. Wooster's directing doyenne Elizabeth LeCompte and her actors are using the text and a specific production of it to demonstrate the art of staging a play and the possibility —or impossibility— of capturing live theater on film.
That's not to say that during the course of this almost 3-hour long production you don't hear many of Shakespeare's most powerful lines and see images of a much acclaimed Hamlet— the 1964 version directed by John Gielgud and starring Richard Burton, which unlike many Shakespeare plays fared better than most Shakespeare plays on Broadway (a seventeen week run). Actually, it was the unusual staging of this production — the actors in every day clothes and a bare stage to create the sense of a rehearsal— that probably comes close to what traditionalists would consider as new and different. The appeal of the production to the Woosterians was not so much Gielgud's bare bones, modern dress approach but a rare film version shot from seventeen camera angles during three successive live performances edited into a film intended to be shown at movie houses throughout the US for two days. This idea of bringing live theater to an expanded audience base was considered novel and exciting enough to seed its own addition to the theatrical lexicon: Theatrofilm and "credited to the miracle of Electonovision." While the film was to be destroyed after its two-day presentations, Burton kept a copy which was found after his death and has since been widely circulated.
For the Wooster folks, whose productions often have the actors appear on stage and also pop up on video screens, the final rehearsal quality of Burton's Hamlet plus that grainy, saved from the trash bin Theatrofilm was inspirational manna for a Wooster-Hamlet hookup. Why not turn this twice-told production into a thrice-told one? Why not indeed.
And so the backdrop of the Newman Theater stage is a large screen on which we see Wooster-edited scenes from the Burton film of the Broadway production. The main playing area has the Wooster troupe, headed by the Scott Shepherd as Hamlet, recreating what we see projected — rearranging themselves and moving around the minimal props replicated to match the film .
It's all a quite amazing technical feat, especially since veteran Wooster actor Kate Valk plays both Gertrude and Ophelias so that Hamlet must at times act as director, declaring "let's skip this Ophelia stuff." Valk's costume and wig switches are somewhat reminiscent of the quick-change artistry of Charles Ludlum's The Mystery of Irma Vep.
The way the Wooster actors' own rehearsal quite brilliantly mirrors what's on that giant screen and Scott Shepherd and his colleagues obviously know their Hamlet. Yet the three hours have enough slow spots to tempt one to amend another famous quote (from Shakespeare's King John) as "nothing's as tedious as a thrice told tale."
Ultimately the extensive edits, plus added footage (which at one time include a comic bit when an actor's laptop transiently turns the monitor into a computer screen with an excerpt from a Charlton Heston film and glimpses of Kenneth Branagh and Ethan Hawke's Hamlets), are trumped by Shakespeare. The poetic majesty of his play tends to make you wish LeCompte and Company could have produced a magic carpet to take you back to the Lunt-Fontanne stage and see Burton and Company. While you can get hold of the unexpurgated, unwoosterized Burton film at Amazon or Netflix, it too can't bring back the experience of seeing the live production. But then that's the point of this clever conceit isn't it?
Other Wooster Group productions reviewed:
To You the Birdie-Wooster take on Racine
Wooster's Poor Theatre
House/Lights-Wooster on Gertrude Stein
Try onlineseats.com for great seats to
The Little Mermaid
Shrek The Musical
The Playbill Broadway YearBook
Leonard Maltin's 2007 Movie Guide