The Wooster Group are like the rockstar grad school students you both idolize and loathe. They manage to be simultaneously way-cool brilliant and maddeningly precious. Any time the experimental theater lords play New York is an event, and their first Public Theater gig with “Hamlet” is no exception. Does the troupe’s scratch-and-sample mix illuminate Shakespeare’s most famous play in significant ways? That’s arguable. Even more so than usual, the production is as much about process, craft and precision technique as text. But few if any other companies can transfix like these guys.
Any criticism over the imbalance in Wooster work between performance and textual interpretation can invariably be deflected by the claim that meaning is not primarily what interests this group. At their best, however, which they were in the stunning return last season of their 1998 “The Emperor Jones,” TWG can burrow deep inside classic drama and emerge, via headspinning multimedia flourishes and intensely physical acting, to shed fresh light on well-worn material. Clocking in at 60 fat-free minutes, that production delivered Eugene O’Neill’s play as a short, sharp shock — a trippy, brain-drill nightmare about the aberrations of power.
The same results are tougher to sustain over close to three hours, and “Hamlet,” with its deeply ambivalent, ponderous thinker as protagonist, is a more challenging play to distill.
Jumping-off point for TWG’s deconstruction is the filmed version of the 1964 Broadway production starring Richard Burton, which played U.S. movie houses for just two days in a presentation grandiosely dubbed “Theatrofilm.” Captained by the dynamic Scott Shepherd, the Wooster thesps stage a simultaneous performance of “Hamlet” while the incomplete film plays on a rear screen, regularly shattering any semblance of a fourth wall to comment wryly on the process.
When Shepherd enters, sitting downstage in front of the large screen and three smaller monitors, one of which shows him in closeup, his interest in the grainy B&W footage of Burton and company seems perfect for our age of the short attention span. “Skip this bit,” he says, leaning frequently on fast-forward. “That’s Barnard Hughes,” he comments. “He shows up later in ‘Midnight Cowboy.’ ”
Each jump to a new scene or movement between the 1964 film’s 17 camera angles involves distorting warp noises on the dense soundtrack and sped-up movements of Ruud Van Den Akker’s aluminum and opaque glass set units as the actors scurry into new positions.
The cast even ape the flickering, jerking movements of old film subjects, notably Daniel Pettrow’s Rosencrantz and Kate Valk’s fluttery Ophelia, her girly wisp of a voice given an eerie, unnatural ring by electronic enhancement. The mesmerizing actress does double duty, swapping Ophelia’s silken red hair for a matronly coif as imperious Gertrude. The two female characters’ shared scenes prompt some funny swift exits, with Shepherd at one point suggesting, “We better skip this Ophelia stuff.”
In the dazzling video work of Reid Farrington and operators Andrew Schneider and Aron Deyo, telling details are picked out and explored with unsettling results: Polonius (Bill Raymond) dies and his disembodied torso remains frozen onscreen; Claudius (Ari Fliakos) fingers the crucifix on a chain around his neck as he considers his guilt; the hands of Hamlet’s dead father (Fliakos again) obsessively play over his sword as the ghost spews bitterness.
Music components come via Casey Spooner’s Laertes, with the Fischerspooner member singing mopey ambient emo odes to the character’s sister.
While all this might seem a self-reflexive exercise in metatheatrical cleverness, avenues of interpretation are there for anyone willing to entertain them.
On the most obvious level, a play about death, its action driven by the vengeful anger of a restless ghost, finds haunted echoes in a film that’s blurred, decomposed, fragmented and manipulated, full of partly or fully erased figures, jarring jumps, continuity lapses and even blank-screen “unrendered” sections that correspond to shifting dimensions of reality.
On another level — particularly relevant for a company whose work has always been intertwined with audiovisual technology — there’s a reflection on the ephemeral lifespan of pre-digital film and the evanescent quality of filmed images. Then there are questions that surface on the very idea of capturing theater on film. Is it a case of one form betraying the other?
And there are fascinating parallels between stage, screen, history and text. The quandary of a brilliant character frozen in ineffectual contemplation correlates uneasily with a dead actor who was plagued by his own self-destructive problems offscreen, eventually squandering that sonorous instrument of a voice on undignified walk-through roles.
It’s not just Burton’s ghost TWG is conjuring, but those of all productions past, regarded by Shepherd with skepticism that veers at times toward mockery.
A hint of smarty-pants condescension — perhaps to all classical readings of the play, with Kenneth Branagh’s 1996 film copping some lip-smacking derision — wafts through Wooster guru Elizabeth LeCompte’s production. What’s remarkable, though, is that despite its off-the-wall approach and unorthodox editing, the staging respects the integrity of Shakespeare’s “Hamlet.”
Just when it seems all the trickery signifies indifference to the original text, almost imperceptibly, LeCompte begins folding in integral soliloquies and entire scenes so that a full-bodied version of “Hamlet” does somehow coalesce, with the muscular ensemble slipping dexterously between classical delivery, contemporary line readings and droll mimicry. It might not generate the soul-stirring emotional responses of the tragedy when it’s powerfully played in traditional mode, but intellectually, Wooster-does-Will is as rigorous as it is relentless.