Theater archives

The Wooster Group plays someone else’s Hamlet


O Hamlet, thou turn’st mine eyes unto the VCR, and there I see such black and grainy tape as will not leave its tinct. The Wooster Group has always loved technology. It has also occasionally loved, and found innovative ways to convey the substance of, great plays. Chekhov, O’Neill, and Gertrude Stein have been grist for its postmodern mill; the results it ground out were never simply the play the author wrote, but what might be called its continuation by other means, like Clausewitz’s definition of war and politics. Nobody ever expected less than aesthetic warfare from the Wooster Group; it was created to challenge prevailing artistic assumptions and has spent the bulk of its life doing so, fruitfully, infuriatingly, and fascinatingly.

But with Hamlet, the Wooster Group has put its commitment on the wrong foot. The media’s the thing wherein they hope to catch—well, it’s hard to say whose conscience, or even whose interest, they expect to catch by what they’ve chosen to do. Hamlet is probably the most produced work in the history of the theater: Great actors are measured by it; the textbooks bristle with landmark productions of it. Along with critics and textual scholars, philosophers, psychologists, poets, composers, and statesmen have published their ruminations on it. What other work has pulled into its orbit Goethe and Gide, Berlioz and Betty Hutton, T.S. Eliot and Pinky and the Brain?

All this material lay within easy reach, and what did the Wooster Group do? Well, they watched several movie versions—as if movies could have anything to do with the theater, except as a blurry hint at what something might have seemed like onstage—and then they chose, unaccountably, to create an “archaeological reconstruction” (their term) of the 1964 Broadway Hamlet, starring Richard Burton and directed by John Gielgud, which they refer to in a program note as “legendary.” But aside from Burton’s magnetic presence and Hume Cronyn’s dryly funny Polonius, there was nothing legendary at all about that soggy, half-conceived venture. Trust me; I was there. A batch of good actors surrounded Burton, some fighting their way free of the general malaise to give effective performances. Burton’s power and his sense of the text—subjects of praise since his early-’50s performances of it at the Old Vic—were still in evidence. But the mixture of Gielgud’s fuzzy “concept” with Burton’s theatrics produced neither a meaningful production nor a great star performance.

That 1964 production, filmed in “Electronovision” for nationwide theatrical showings, provides the bulk of the video collage that plays as a backdrop to the Wooster Group’s cursory march through highlights from Hamlet; periodically Scott Shepherd, playing Hamlet, interrupts himself to ask that the film be paused or fast-forwarded. The Wooster Group loves moving objects, so the stage is dominated by a long table that rolls from left to right and back again at random moments; the small supporting cast does a lot of equally irrelevant coming and going, but nobody seems much engaged with anyone else; extensive dramaturgic hash is made by having Kate Valk double Gertrude and Ophelia (though the redoubtable Valk shows, predictably, that she could carry off either role). Shepherd gives the chunks of Hamlet he speaks a strong, surly impetus; at more intense moments, though, he turns shouty and lapses into a disconcerting Southern twang.

The result, in Elizabeth LeCompte’s perfunctory staging, echoes the half-hearted effect of its 1964 source by adding up to neither a production of Hamlet nor a Wooster Group conceptual event. Instead, it looks like half a stab at each. Apart from Valk and Shepherd, everyone—even actors as good as Bill Raymond and Ari Fliakos—seems blankly uncommunicative. The result puzzles me, because it lacks not only the fire but the density, sensual and intellectual, that I’ve come to expect from the Wooster Group; some technical ingenuity has been exerted on it, but seemingly little thought. If archaeology really was the point, which I doubt, why not attempt to recreate, Woosterishly, a truly legendary production—the John Barrymore–Arthur Hopkins version, say, or the 1930s Old Vic rendering that made Gielgud London’s hero? Both stars left behind a plentiful archive of film and audio recordings; both have complex historical associations that might have enriched the group’s explorations. The Burton mishap wasn’t even the most notable Hamlet that New York saw in that era: Donald Madden at the Phoenix Theatre (1961), Alfred Ryder (1964) and Stacy Keach (1972) in Central Park; even Joe Papp’s demented “contemporary” Hamlet with Martin Sheen, throwing peanuts at the audience during “To be or not to be,” in the Public Theater’s very first season.

But the Woosters apparently aren’t interested in theatrical tradition any more than they’re interested in Hamlet the play and what it might mean for today’s audience. They don’t even explore the links that the Burton production extends: Backstage at it, ensemble member Gerome Ragni was busy dreaming up the work that would ultimately become Hair, also produced in the Public’s first season—a connection you might think would be of interest to the people who found the subterranean ties between Flaubert’s St. Anthony and Lenny Bruce. Or maybe I’m wrong. Maybe, as everyone in L.A. thinks, the theater no longer exists and the only meaningful arts are movies and TV. I’m aware of that sterile, two-dimensional worldview; I just never realized that the Wooster Group shared it.