Summer of Ham

Some outrageous fortune has made this open season on Hamlet

Every summer belongs, unofficially, to some Shakespeare play. Two years ago there were three versions of Richard III; last summer seemed to have a thing for Lear; this summer, in spite of a pair of Shrews, is dominated by Hamlet. Cal Shakes has put on not just the tragedy itself but also Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, and now, at the Rhino, there's Hamletmachine, Heiner Müller's avant-garde nightmare of German history.

This one is easily the weirdest and possibly the hardest of the three to make interesting, since the characters just slosh around in their own murderous language and the story has all but collapsed. But Cutting Ball tries, and doesn't totally fail. The troupe has linked it with a play by the futurist poet Vladimir Mayakovsky -- called Vladimir Mayakovsky: A Tragedy -- for no particular reason except to see what the plays might say to each other. Mayakovsky was written in 1913, at the dawn of world communism, and Hamletmachine dates from its farcical late period (1977).

Müller led the Berliner Ensemble for several years before his death, in 1995, and Hamletmachine is one of his most famous plays. His name in German basically means Henry Miller, but he had none of Miller's exuberance: He was a cynical, self-important depressive who made Milan Kundera look humble. Most of his work has the reek of strong talent moldering under the tyranny of the East German government and the airless conventions of its avant-garde. The struggle, though, is interesting. This show opens on a red stage with a skull on the floor, a pile of TVs under a noose, a toilet, and a bare interrogation desk. Soon two official thugs stand behind Hamlet as he loosens his tie and makes a declaration into a microphone at the desk. While he talks, a figure called Hamlet's Spectre utters Oedipal clichés in German ("Open your legs, Mama"), and Ophelia pukes into the toilet.

Nathan Aaron Place, who plays Mayakovsky and Hamlet's Spectre.
Rob Melrose
Nathan Aaron Place, who plays Mayakovsky and Hamlet's Spectre.

The reason these apparently silly gestures have force is Müller's language (translated by Carl Weber), and the slow terror of life in a nation where the future looks almost as bleak as the recent past. "Germany's brutal history is my enemy," declared Müller. "That's why I write." After a few scenes of Hamlet-under-totalitarianism, the TVs flicker on and show scenes from the West: Regis Philbin, the shopping channel, Reagan grandstanding in 1987 before the Berlin Wall. Hamlet pulls out a rifle.

The show is well staged by Rob Melrose -- Ophelia's Kabaret striptease is especially lurid-looking -- but not very well acted. Michael Ferris Gibson as Hamlet, Nathan Aaron Place as Hamlet's Spectre, and Kris Wasley as Ophelia all utter their stark lines with less-than-searing conviction. (Place's German is also not convincing.) What the show needs besides a strong sense of visuals is timing, and close attention to movement -- a good choreographer might have helped -- because the nightmare, if not total, doesn't work. Instead of a story, Hamletmachine has layers of meaning, and more visceral power than Cutting Ball conjures.

Mayakovsky is better. Nathan Aaron Place portrays the Russian poet himself with all the conviction he gropes for in Hamletmachine. Straggly-haired, barefooted, full of poetry (translated by Paul Schmidt), he chants hypnotic lines to the rhythm of industrial music. The play becomes a symphonic poem of language, recorded drums, and city noise. It could be pretentious, but isn't. Instead it's funny. "An Old Man With Scrawny Black Cats, a Couple of Thousand Years Old" gives a hammy speech; so does "A Woman With One Ear," and "An Enormous Woman, Maybe Twenty Feet Tall," who conceals a semiautomatic under her enormous coat.

The script was written between revolutions in Russia, and it does, in fact, capture an "exuberance about the world on the eve of Communism's rise" -- to quote the program notes. But director Melrose dresses his set and charac-ters appropriately for present-day America, and it's amazing how well the old bohemian attitude translates. Mayakovsky is a load of street-attitude aimed at Society, a yawp of the disaffected, and looks here like a faithfully surreal portrait of Mission and 16th. An Ordinary Young Man steps up in suit and tie to give a quick résumé of his life so far: college, various inventions, career. "And I got a little woman, and we're gonna have a baby. So let's not have any trouble," he says, like a newcomer to the Mission.

By juxtaposing these plays, Melrose offers a circular vision of history. Mayakovsky comes first, reminds you of the immediate neighborhood, and suggests that class hatred failed to die with communism. Behind all the modern-looking street characters hang three pictures of the men called "dead prostitutes" in Hamletmachine (Marx, Lenin, Mao), but you still feel a twinge of revolutionary joy. Then Hamletmachine comes on to show what happened the last time someone tried to "overthrow existing conditions" -- simultaneously flashing images from hypercapitalist, post-Cold War TV -- and ends in a steaming pile of hacked bodies. The sum total is pretty good experimental theater. We get a timely revisitation of Hamlet, and an unlikely revival of Müller's Middle European nausea.

 
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