Thomas Burns Scully
I’ve never been a fan of the term ‘performance art’. Like ‘avant-garde’, it’s a term too often used to convey intellectual snobbery on to unlikable theatre, dismissing audience members who don’t get it by calling them narrow-minded and stupid. But sometimes, if we can tear the words away from my own silly emotional hang-ups, ‘performance art’ is a useful catch term for describing an atypical piece of theatre. It’s not a bad way to describe the show I just saw, a piece down at HERE called ‘HamletGhosts’. This piece (devised by ‘The Brewing Dept.’) was definitely free from avant-garde snobbery, and it most certainly didn’t dismiss it’s audience. It was, however, completely atypical theatre, a unique performance experience, and I thought it was rather good. Allow me to explain in greater detail…
As the name would imply, the piece is based on ‘Hamlet’, an obscure play by oft-neglected English playwright William Shakespeare. The experience of the show is somewhere in-between a visual essay, a variety sketch show and a Godard film. It follows the emotional journey of Hamlet, without bothering to tie you down with any plot. The action progresses by way of loosely strung together surreal vignettes, some of which are comedy sketches, some of which are dance numbers or movement pieces, some of which are frank monologues to the audience, and some of which are other things entirely. All of them aim to create an experience, a mood also experienced in ‘Hamlet’ at a certain point in the play. The only consistently recurring character is an unnamed clown, who innocently navigates her way through the action, often talking directly to the audience. If it sounds confusing, well… it is a bit, but only in the sense that it’s hard to contextualize without seeing it. How to put it simply? It’s a bunch of different scenes, all inspired by ‘Hamlet’. Some of them are funny, some of them are serious. Put together in order they roughly describe the emotional arc of ‘Hamlet’, whilst at the same time discussing/demonstrating its themes in a theatrical manner. That should be enough of a working knowledge for now.
For all its seeming high-concept-ness, ‘HamletGhosts’ is actually very easy to watch, and not the least bit hard to follow. Once you’re a few scenes in, the lack of consistent context for what you’re seeing actually becomes refreshing, creating a dream-like sense of safety. The characters often interact directly with the audience, calling for volunteers in the style of improv, or a magic show. This creates an atmosphere that is extremely convivial. Its sense of humor about itself is also fantastic. The first scene sets the tone nicely. A young woman enters, dressed in Renaissance garb and holding a sword. It is the opening scene of ‘Hamlet’, she is surrounded by mist. She nervously approaches the centre of the stage. She turns around suddenly. She sees something… and then she has to call for line. A prompt in the audience gives it to her. She continues, then forgets the next line. And the next. And the next. And the next. She calls for prompts, each time increasing her actorly frustration, until the scene dissolves in disarray.
I would like to tell you about each member of the cast in more detail. Unfortunately, I can’t do that. None of the play’s characters have names, and there are no hints as to who plays what in the show’s program. Therefore, I cannot name actors to their parts. Perhaps a slight oversight, in my view, but never the matter. They are, by and large, excellent; all able to perform a variety of roles and functions with great efficacy. They are credited in the program as performers and creators, so I can assume that they were part of an extensive devising process. It certainly feels that way, particularly in the monologue segments of the show. The actors deliver their touching speeches in a laid-back, conversational manner that suggests that the stories come from their own experiences. They often feel more like improv than anything else. These quiet moments of contemplation from the actors appear to speak to the emotional resonance that ‘Hamlet’ still has today with modern audiences. They also provide a soft counterpoint to the high-energy dance scenes, and the Pythonesque comedy sequences that make up a lot of the show’s meat. Actually, Pythonesque is a very good word for it. The flow of the show is very much reminiscent of the ‘stream of consciousness’ approach that gave ‘Monty Python’s Flying Circus’ it’s distinctive feel.
Not every single idea in the show works. A girl reading from a diary at different points in her life felt a little ham-handed to me. But, surprisingly, for an experimental show like this, most of it does work. And very well it works too, I enjoyed myself immensely. This team of actors under the creative direction of Cody Holliday Haefner have created something here that is of a very different vintage. I can now honestly say to people that I have seen a show about ‘Hamlet’ in which Amanda Bynes tweets are read out loud, a fish asked for volunteers to help scale itself, and a man danced in drag to Britney Spears music. You can’t say these things about ‘Les Miz’. I was amused, bemused and gripped for the whole thing, and I wasn’t expecting to be. At all. I thought this was going to be some wanky thesis project obsessed with its own self-importance. I could not have been more wrong. ‘HamletGhosts’ is like a kitten mermaid: a strange and beautiful creature that makes up its own kind of nonsensical sense. You don’t see shows like this all that often. Moreover, you don’t see shows like this that often that are also objectively good and entertaining.
‘HamletGhosts’ is a reminder that experimentation in theatrical form is not a lost art. In fact, in an era of declining theatre attendance, it may be just this kind of experimentation in form that will bring people back to the theatre. Claire Dowie used to write (and I’m assuming still does) about the limitations of the fourth wall and narrative drama in theatre. She’d probably be quite impressed with ‘HamletGhosts’, and how it uses its audience. Near the start of the show, the adorable clown in washing up gloves comes out and instructs the audience to buckle up, then laboriously makes them actually do it. Even though there are no actual seat-belts in the theatre. It’s hilarious. I said it before, you don’t get that in ‘Les Miz’. This show does the impossible, in that it genuinely does make you think about ‘Hamlet’ in a different way. A thousand revivals since the 1600s have failed to do this, but a scrappy group of New York actors managed it. Bravo. If you can, I highly recommend catching this show.
‘The Brewing Dept.’ have just finished up their three night run of ‘HamletGhosts’ at HERE. It will be running again at the Rochester Fringe from September 25-26.
This review was written by Thomas Burns Scully, a New York based writer, actor and musician. His work has been lauded in Time Out NY and the New York Times, and his writing has been performed on three continents. He is generally considered to be the thrifty person’s Renaissance man.
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