Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Review: Ma-Ma-Ma-Ma-Ma-Ma-Ma-Ma Mad Mad

There's an old saying that goes something like this: "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." When it comes to playwriting, writers go through drafts upon drafts until they find the one that works. The prolific playwrights, the Shakespeares and Williams and Millers and Chekovs, have granted us such masterpieces that we continue to produce them and adapt them because we want to put our own spin on them. But when it comes to their exact pieces, they’re virtually untouchable. And should stay that way. In Puzzle the Will, director and “adaptor” Lauretta Pope has deconstructed the Bard’s classic drama Hamlet and put it back together in a bold and brazen manner.
It is extremely difficult to call Puzzle the Will an adaptation. Sure, it takes something and theatrically creates something new with it, but it maintains the words of Shakespeare, just in a different order. Why? Well, the thesis is to show the characters and story in a familiar yet different format. What it really does is “drama classes” the text. But the sad and true fact is Puzzle the Will just comes across as pretentious. The intentions are well, but the way Pope presents her piece as if this is how Willy should have done it. Pope virtually rewrites Hamlet. Yes, the authorship of the Shakespearean canon will forever be debated but regardless, but Shakespeare isn’t alive to defend the structure of his work. And I don’t know many, if any, living playwright who would willingly allow someone to deconstruct and puzzle their play in a new order in this manner. There is no denying Pope has done her homework on the text. The findings she discovers about characters and themes are fascinating. But this structure and examination is better suited for the rehearsal process before diving into what the playwright intended. To continue along the familiar yet unfamiliar idea, gender and ethnicity is mixed around as well. It’s a device that has been used before but it added nothing to this particular production. There were no new discoveries except the ability of some actors getting the opportunity to play roles they would never normally get to.
photo by Dan Rousseau
Like Hamlet, it’s possible Pope has gone mad. You have to be mad to rewrite Shakespeare so it’s fitting that Pope took on two other roles including the titular mad Danish Prince and director. Securing three prominent positions, Puzzle the Will could be renamed The Lauretta Pope Spectacular. One of the many jobs of the director is to be the eyes and ears of the production, guiding the team through the journey of the play. With Pope finding herself in the spotlight acting as Hamlet, the overall staging was a bit messy as she was the focal point throughout. While there were some stunning and inventive moments, aided greatly by Dan Rousseau’s lighting, including the brilliant Ghost and Hamlet back and forth, other bits fell by the wayside. Had there been a sole person wearing the director hat and the director hat only, it would have made a necessary difference.
It’s inevitable that every stage actor has tackled Shakespeare at least once in their career, whether it be professionally or through training. That doesn’t mean if you’ve tried it you’re good at it. There were many in the Puzzle the Will bunch that didn’t quite grasp the Bard with ease. But those who did commanded the stage. Keith Chandler as Ophelia and the Second Gravedigger, Zak Kamin doubling as Laertes and Rosencrantz, and Brett Warnke, sadly only seen was the Ghost, Priest, and Bernardo, were the strongest at the text and finding a character. Aside from these three, the others gave rare moments of Shakespearean bliss. Pope offered a fast-talking Hamlet, speeding through the text, barely coming up for breath. The speed could have played into the madness of the character but unless you know the text, it was difficult to comprehend. Lyn Kagen was fine as Gertrude but in this version, Gertrude was almost an afterthought.
There was enormous passion on the stage. It’s clear that this company is proud of their work. But the way this piece was presented came across as something drastically different from the intended description. It’s like on the tv cooking shows, like “Chopped”, when the chef comes out with their fancy “deconstructed” dishes. You can’t help but roll your eyes and think, “pretentious.”