Theater of the Sensitive

Hamlet. By Charles Marowitz. Directed by Jonathan Gonzalez. Starring Christina Augello, William Boynton, Val Hendrickson, Kurt Kroesche, and Cat Schalis-Thompson. At Exit Stage Left, 156 Eddy (at Taylor), through Feb. 27. Call 673-3847.

Subject to Fits. By Robert Montgomery. Directed by John Sowle. Starring Dan Carbone, Vincent Camillo, Beth Donohue, Paul Gerrior, Larry Spenler, and Kathryn Trask. At the Exit Theater, 156 Eddy (at Taylor), through Feb. 27. Call 673-3847.

The Glass Menagerie. By Tennessee Williams. Directed by Jean Shelton. Starring Anne Macey, Robert Corrick, Elijah Berlow, Rachel Klyce, and Dean Shreiner. At the Actors Theater, 533 Sutter (at Powell), through March 21. Call 296-9179.

The opening shows in this year's Absurdist Season at the Exit are a pair of bizarre reworkings of sensitive-prince tragedies. Hamlet, by Charles Marowitz, is a short but wild take on Shakespeare's Prince of Hesitancy; and Subject to Fits is based on The Idiot, Dostoevski's novel about the epileptic Prince Myshkin, who stands out as a Christian simpleton in St. Petersburg's backbiting high society. Both shows locate the nihilism at the foundation of the older masterpieces, and dredge up something not just absurd but downright odd. Subject to Fits adds operatic songs for which you may want to bring earplugs, and Hamlet shows the young prince romancing his mother and pursued by his sister, while Ophelia gets molested by Claudius, directly contradicting most scholars' considered opinions on the matter of who-screws-whom before everyone dies in Denmark.

Marowitz published this rearrangement of Hamlet in the '60s, when absurdism was especially hip. His idea was to build a collage of what Hamlet himself sees after coming home "to find his father dead, his mother remarried, a court full of treachery, a state threatened by invasion, and every imaginable pressure forcing him towards an act he is temperamentally incapable of." Scenes and speeches are shuffled, spliced, repopulated. Different characters say familiar words to other different characters. Nothing makes sense. One scene has Gertrude, the queen, giving Polonius' famous advice ("Neither a borrower nor a lender be," etc.) to Hamlet, Guildenstern, Ophelia, and the Clown. Like a schoolmarm she raps out the meter with a blackboard stick, and makes her audience recite. Ophelia's a little Jezebel; Uncle Claudius looks like a pimp. Hamlet swings his sword at Claudius' neck while he prays alone, on his knees; the lights go out and the Clown falls dead from behind an arras, wearing Polonius' beard.

The play is an impressionistic mishmash of the contents of Hamlet's crazed head. Though it be madness there's method in't, and hard Freudian reasons for all the sex. Marowitz's version steams out the old pathos and exaggerates the meaningless pain. It's wacky but mercifully short and, in this case, well-acted. Val Hendrickson does a fine ghost, hard-voiced and haunting; Roberto "Peligroso" Robinson plays an authoritative Fortinbras; Cat Schaulis is a feline Ophelia; Phil Worman is perfectly cast as Rosencrantz, though I was wondering where his usual Whistleaire partner was for Guildenstern; and Kurt Kroesche does Hamlet with a nicely confused intensity. If the cast were not this good the play would be boring, but the actors' energy turns Marowitz's intellectual exercise into a fun night out.

"Subject to Fits is a response to The Idiot," writes Robert Montgomery in his Author's Note to the Exit's other show. "It is absolutely unfaithful to the novel; it uses the novel for its own selfish purposes; it does not hold the novel responsible."

Well, someone needs to be held responsible, because the play is too damn long. It's less original than Marowitz's Hamlet, staging the source novel's rough plot points more or less in order; and sometimes the energy in this production can't support the basic madness of the play. Prince Myshkin arrives in St. Petersburg looking like a fresh-faced hippie, simply dressed, and falls into the claws of a nobleman called Parfyron Rogozhin and a rich society dame, Natasha Fillipovna, who first treats Myshkin like dirt and then considers marrying him. The first act deals with Natasha's marital decision; the second act deals with the pretty young Aglaya Yepanchin's obsession with the epileptic prince, and with Natasha's violent death.

The cast here is not the problem. Beth Donohue plays Natasha as a bitch who sets fire to the hundred thousand rubles Rogozhin gives her as a marriage proposal, and asks Ganya, another suitor, to retrieve whatever burning money he can with his teeth. Ganya (Larry Spenler) is marvelously stiff and nervous, anxious to succeed in society; his father (Paul Gerrior) is a drunken and gravel-voiced general; and Aglaya (Kathryn Pallakoff) is a charmingly cruel and disingenuous brat ("Who needs you!" she shouts at Myshkin. "All you care about are the deepest regions of people's souls!"). Vincent Camillo is well cast in the lead; Kathryn Trask is a perfect Madame Yepanchin; and Dan Carbone, as Lebedev, maintains the show's bleeding edge of manic lack of taste. He's marvelously offensive.

No, the problem here is that the playwright doesn't know when to quit. He has the characters break into operatic song a few too many times -- the best one is a Russian march about the symbolic meaning of a stuffed gerbil -- and there are too many slack, obscure moments that don't pay off. It's what Hamlet would have been if it had lasted more than 90 minutes: a rather tedious concept play.

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