The renowned Wooster Group has brought to L.A.’s Redcat a radical collage based on “Hamlet.” About no production of Shakespeare’s play has it been truer to observe, “Though this be madness, yet there is method in’t.” Slice ‘n’ dicing and sampling the 1964 film of John Gielgud’s Broadway revival with Richard Burton and an all-star cast, visionary helmer Elizabeth LeCompte’s exploration of the limits of performance yields unexpected rewards for those willing to hang in there with her.
After a two-night nationwide showing, all prints — shot by 17 cameras during two live perfs at the Lunt-Fontanne — were to have been destroyed, but a copy’s discovery among Burton’s effects permitted the Wooster deconstruction: A company of nine acts out what’s projected on a screen behind them, down to repositioning bodies and set pieces when shots change and making spastic adjustments at film breaks and jump cuts.
Wooster’s wizards work over the B&W celluloid like a pair of jeans, further under- and over-exposing an already muddy print to add static and melting effects. Actors are digitally made to appear and vaporize like ghosts, the casually spoken 1964 cadences forced into strict iambic pentameter with regular end-stops that cause even more film jerkiness.
In short, a modern, rehearsal-clothes take of 44 years ago has been made to look as archaic and artificial as the 1601 original. (When LeCompte wants things to seem really ancient, she trots out Charlton Heston’s Player King from the Branagh film.)
Style is deliberately distancing as the Wooster Group commits desperately not to the objectives and intentions of Shakespeare’s characters but to following each stilted move to the letter. Scott Shepherd (the prince) and Roy Faudree (Polonius) speak aloud as Burton and Hume Cronyn are electronically piped into their ears; Laertes (Fischerspooner member Casey Spooner) sings the odd emo ballad.
“It ain’t ‘Hamlet,’ ” as a gent was overheard muttering on press night, and full enjoyment probably does require a lack of interest in the plot commensurate with LeCompte’s own. What it is, much of the way, is a trenchant commentary on the effect of the past on contemporary performance, a dramatization of how theater artists are both inspired and hamstrung by tradition.
Chopping up “To be or not to be” into digital iambs allows Shepherd (and us) to discover something new in a famous speech. But just as a thesp manages to whip up some emotional fire or sense, something in the ’64 movie — or an interpolated, projected slide with the word “Unrendered” — intervenes to break it. Fragile creativity, the metaphor seems to be saying, is subject to “a thousand natural shocks” but perseveres regardless.
Midway, as if demonstrating the staying power of genius, Shakespeare and the live troupe start to win out over the hidebound past. Each fast-forwarding goes further, the pace picks up, and “Hamlet” takes on a propulsive force unknown to conventional productions. Though the words blur, a clarity emerges from the closet scene, the gravedigger scene (reduced to 30 seconds) and the final duel to suggest, crazily, the thrills “Hamlet” must have offered at the original Globe for all its noise and distraction.
By the end, the hard-working Shepherd takes on a preternatural stillness perfectly suited to Hamlet’s resigned acceptance of mortality. Entire company performs with yeoman energy and inventiveness, especially Kate Valk in her instantaneous shifts between wigs and personalities as Gertrude and Ophelia. As the latter, Valk manages to both embrace and comment on Linda Marsh’s banal 1964 ingenue in a delicious mix of satire and empathy.
In his invaluable journal of playing Guildenstern, “Letters From an Actor,” William Redfield refers to the recording’s financials as “a mass screwing of the acting company so delicious” as to merit its own tome. The Woosters are indulging in a mass screwing around with the cast’s work, but Redfield, like any artist seeking to stretch theater’s possibilities, would surely be intrigued and stimulated by the result.