York Rite Masonic Hall, 311 W. Seventh
Through Feb. 8
Running time: 1 hr., 15 min.
With its foreign title and scholarly association, one could wrongly assume this latest offering from Hidden Room Theatre to be nothing more than an arcane dramaturgical exercise that only the most devoted Shakespeare geeks could enjoy. Nothing could be further from the truth. Even Tiffany Stern, the Oxford professor who made Christine Schmidle's translation of Der Bestrafte Brudermord the subject of her research, refers to this 1710 German puppet version of the Shakespearean masterpiece as Hamlet without the "thinky bits."
Unlike the Bard's deeply moving tale of the Prince of Denmark, this Hamlet contains no quiet meditations until Horatio's closing speech, and Ophelia's madness is twisted further by sexual aggression. Yet Stern's collaboration with Hidden Room's inimitable Beth Burns brings to life a rare gem of an experience. For starters, the venue itself is unique, with a portable puppet stage sitting inside the York Rite Masonic Temple – both in the neoclassical style. Warm hues of red, gold, and cream dominate, and with the incandescent lighting and plump tapestry-covered pillows, the overall effect is that of an 18th century literary salon. Being required to whisper a password to gain entry adds to the intrigue.
Yet what happens here is more in the vein of Monty Python or Mr. Bean. Narrators Judd Farris and Jason Newman stand right out in front of the stage, voicing all of the play's characters in a variety of accents, among them French, German, and American – both Deep South and East Coast Mafioso.
This is Hamlet slapstick, if you can imagine – a sideshow attraction replete with impassioned drumming, hearty handclaps, and aromatic incense. The play runs just over an hour, and the frequent scene changes allow its bewigged narrators to playfully mock their audience with verve. The shadow of contemporary British comedy is cast backward again as Farris' antics in particular bring to mind Hugh Laurie as Prince George in Blackadder.
The puppets, as works of art, are difficult to date stylistically. However, one thing is certain: There hasn't been this much hair on a stage since Gazzarri's ruled the Sunset Strip in 1987. These are not the Salzburg marionettes, but the style is fitting to their farcical purposes. Jennifer Rose Davis has done a fine job of crafting tiny idols whose rich expressions capture an emotional range that goes beyond the requirements of this limited text.
Though the opening night crowd was a mix of Shakespearean actors, tweedy English professors, and members of the Society for Creative Anachronism, the show really does have broad appeal. Farris and Newman, along with puppeteers Joseph Garlock, Ryan Hamilton, Jeff Mills, and Kim Adams, are brilliant improvisers. When technical issues arise with their temperamental wooden performers, hilarity ensues. "Do comedians get into heaven?" These will.
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