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'Hamlet' in the present, yet instructed by the past

January 24, 2008|Zachary Pincus-Roth

IN 1964, Elizabeth LeCompte saw Richard Burton play Hamlet on Broadway. John Gielgud's stripped-down production put Burton in a turtleneck and performers eschewed the bard's singsongy verse and spoke the lines as prose. "It was very experimental," LeCompte recalls. "He was trying to a get a feeling of [the play] as a rehearsal right before the opening, not an actual performance."

Four decades later, LeCompte is the head of the Wooster Group -- the more-than-30-year-old experimental, multimedia theater company whose roster has included the likes of Willem Dafoe and Frances McDormand -- and the company's resident "Hamlet" obsessive, Scott Shepherd, has convinced LeCompte to stage the play, her first-ever Shakespeare production.

For inspiration, the group dug into the bevy of extant "Hamlet" movies (Kenneth Branagh, Ethan Hawke, etc.), eventually finding the film of the Burton production. And LeCompte had her way in. "I said, 'This is an artifact of the theater,' " she recalls. "Like you might find pieces of a Greek temple. You have the pieces and you try to construct what it would have looked like."

Or, this being the Wooster Group, what you would have wanted it to look like -- the stage equivalent of a YouTube mash-up.

Shepherd took the film and buried himself in editing software, shifting around pauses in the dialogue to force the sound of iambic pentameter. The video team added fast-forwards, rewinds, slo-mos and, in some parts, erased actors or parts of their bodies.

During the performance, which arrives at REDCAT on Wednesday, the film appears on a screen behind live actors channeling the film onstage. When the camera shot changes, actors quickly move around to re-create the new shot, always giving the audience the same point of view as the camera lens.

Oh, and one other thing: The performers hear the film dialogue via earpieces and speak the same lines aloud.

"Did you ever see a movie where somebody was possessed?" explains Kate Valk, who plays both Ophelia and Gertrude. "Another example is when you sing along with Sting and you want to sound like him. Somewhere between the two is what we're doing."

Shepherd, who plays the title character, says that a "Hamlet" production contending with the film of a previous production "is very fitting because what happens to Hamlet is he gets an assignment from the past -- an assignment from the previous generation -- that he's not so sure he wants to carry out" (i.e.; his father's ghost telling him to kill his uncle). "It's about inheritance," he adds. "It's about living up to the example of people who came before you."

Plus, he notes, some suggest "Hamlet" is about the ongoing shift toward modernity -- very appropriate for the Wooster Group's aesthetic.

"[Our approach] comes out of a more modern way of dealing with media," says LeCompte, "what they call 'repurposing someone else's material,' which is done frequently with music and on the Internet. With theater, it's heresy."




WHERE: REDCAT (Roy and Edna Disney/CalArts Theater), 631 W. 2nd St., L.A.

WHEN: Opens 8:30 p.m. Wed.; 8:30 p.m. Tue.-Sat.; 7 p.m. Feb. 3; 3 p.m. Feb. 10. Ends Feb. 10.

PRICE: $25 to $55

INFO: (213) 237-2800;

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