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Reviewed by:
  • Hamlet
  • Theresa Smalec
Hamlet. By William Shakespeare. Directed by Elizabeth LeCompte. The Wooster Group, Public Theater, New York City. 11 October 2007.

The Wooster Group's latest version of their evolving show revealed that the theatrical process of reenactment can be, in itself, a site of disability. The company explored the fraught relationship between originals and their copies on several levels: through their equivocal acting and set designs, through visual forms of "ghosting," and through the use of various tropes of impairment. Their rendition of Hamlet began with actor Scott Shepherd parked in a wheelchair at center stage. A closer look revealed that it was a director's chair adapted onto a metal trolley. Seated in this awkward contraption, Shepherd appeared to control the movement of the 1964 Richard Burton film on which The Wooster Group's Hamlet is based. "Play the tape," he ordered an unseen technician, "Fast-forward to the Ghost." As Burton's opening scenes flashed across a widescreen monitor, Shepherd pondered the lines of Marcellus, who offers to strike the Ghost with his partisan: "I'm not really sure what a partisan is," he told us candidly. "Some kind of long stick, or something."

Everyone who studies Hamlet is familiar with the title character's tendency to reflect rather than to act. The Wooster Group departed, however, from a tradition that interprets Hamlet's dilemma as psychological; instead, it explored his "failure to act" quite literally. Early on, the cast took Hamlet's naturalistic notion of what acting should be—a "mirror up to nature" (3.2.22)—to new heights of farce. It mimicked not only the actions and gestures of its filmic counterparts, but also the technical glitches found in Burton's grainy recording. Whenever the footage skipped or the camera angle shifted, performers replicated these hiccups with their bodies, causing several to appear afflicted by Tourette's syndrome. Logically, I knew that Daniel Pettrow simply reproduced a jump cut when he abruptly goose-stepped in his role as Rosencrantz/Guildenstern. Nevertheless, his outward shudder lent to the imagery by which I recognized Denmark's rotten state. Task-based performing became oddly representational. So, was it acting?

Equally equivocal were the production's set dressings and sound effects. Bill Raymond's Polonius and Ari Fliakos's Claudius shared a geriatric stroller. Claudius sat on it while praying in the chapel; Polonius schlepped it around though he had no problem walking. The stroller was at once a stand-in for similarly shaped items in the film and an ambiguous symbol. A mysterious Nurse (Dominique Bousquet) spent most of her time performing functional tasks like moving props between scenes, but also haunted the set wearing a translucent surgical mask. The beeps of a cardiac monitor sporadically pierced the theatre—often when nothing alarming seemed afoot. (A more amusing sampled sound was the Ghost's echo of Hamlet's edict that his friends keep mum about their supernatural sighting. Shepherd clearly enjoyed repeating the order "swear on my sword!" just so we could hear the Ghost say "SWEAR!" one more time in its spooky voice.)

Despite such moments of goofiness, The Wooster Group's interest in the unstable relationship between originals and their copies was ultimately more complex than it initially seemed. Recalling Seven Easy Pieces (2005), the program outlined the company's goal to "reconstruct a hypothetical theatre piece from the fragmentary evidence of the edited film." Yet unlike Marina Abramovic, who interpreted past performances from a critical distance—as one would a musical score—the performers inserted themselves directly into the ur-text, ending with a provocative image of being possessed: "Channeling the ghost of the legendary 1964 performance, we descend into a kind of madness, intentionally replacing our own spirit with the spirit of another."

Performance studies recently has taken up the subjects of reenactment and disability in largely unrelated ways. With Hamlet, The Wooster Group forged unexpected [End Page 277] links between these fields. While performer Kate Valk "failed to act" in the sense of interpreting Shakespeare's characters, her meticulous engagement with her filmic doubles (Eileen Herlie as Gertrude and Linda Marsh as Ophelia) opened a critical gap through which...


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