Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

Under the Influence

February 02, 2008

Scott Shepherd as Hamlet
Photo: Paula Court 2008

Solid flesh may not in fact melt, but this weekend’s performances of Hamlet in a production from the Wooster Group at the REDCAT comes perhaps as close as one can get. After a run in NY, Elizabeth LeCompte and her troupe arrived here with their whiz-bang clever audio-visual spectacle that is visually captivating and worth seeing despite its faults. The performance is built around a 1960s Broadway production directed by John Gielgud and starring Richard Burton that was filmed and then exhibited in a large number of movie theaters around the country over a couple of days. The film acts as template for this performance in that a highly edited and “remixed” version of the film plays continuously throughout on a huge screen at the rear of the stage. The film is not only sped up and slowed down, but images are frequently altered with actors being removed from the scene, or voices coming in then later disappearing sometimes in conjunction with the live actors and sometimes not. Both the set and the actors then emulate the performance as it happens right down to the rhythm, tone and gestures of the film. So strictly is this adhered to that the performance is mostly marked by an unusual movement style in which the actors repeatedly make quick jerky and repetitive movements that mimic the effect of cuts and camera angle changes in the film. Actors often double as stagehands rapidly shifting furniture and other set pieces rapidly back and forth while scenes are taking place emphasizing the same disorienting effect that the protagonist finds himself in. Think of it as kind of an anti-Met Opera HD broadcast.

There are other technological aspects as well including live video of the performance itself that is projected onto a number of smaller screens positioned around the set that the cast periodically raise or lower for effect. Casey Spooner and Warren Fischer have written beat-heavy music that is performed by Spooner himself who plays Laertes, Rosencrantz, and Guildenstern. This double casting is prominent most notable with the roles of Ophelia and Gertrude, handled simultaneously by a mesmerizing Kate Valk. At the center of all this is Scott Shepherd’s Hamlet, which is most interesting to the extent that it is not actually all his. LeCompte strives to suggest the myriad ways in which prior performances from other artists influence later generations of actors. Shepherd is doing Richard Burton as much as he is doing Hamlet in a way that is both simultaneously reverent and ridiculous. By making the performance itself less “natural”, the troupe emphasizes the actual work of the art itself. All the component parts of the operation are on display.

While very clever, fun, and interesting to look at though, even at an edited 3 hours the play still drags at times when it feels that everyone is just trying to get through a bit of explanatory business before moving onto the next real point. Still, the Wooster Group has mounted a Hamlet you aren’t likely to see again soon, so head out before it ends on February 10.


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