Review: The Wooster Group's 'Hamlet'


Special to Newsday

November 1, 2007

Shakespeare used many more words than most of us will ever know - that's one reason the authorship of his plays is disputed. But it's safe to say that even his prodigious vocabulary didn't include the phrase "fast forward."

Those two little words crop up repeatedly, and always disconcertingly, in the midst of the Wooster Group's sneakily straightforward and oddly exhilarating "Hamlet."

Claudius (Ari Fliakos) speaks them with offhanded hauteur, like a comma holding up his next line. Hamlet (Scott Shepherd) utters them confidentially, like an obsessive who's replayed the same scene over and over again on his VCR.

At one point, a quirk of double-casting - Kate Valk plays both Ophelia and Gertrude - requires Shepherd to mutter sheepishly to the technical director: "You better fast-forward through this Ophelia stuff."

The tape he wants the crew to skim through is another "Hamlet," a black-and-white film projected behind and around the stage. This two-track approach is par for the course for the Wooster Group, which has made a bewitching, often bewildering mix of live performance and video a signature of its style.

But this may be the company's boldest experiment yet with the form. Director Elizabeth LeCompte has nine actors play almost the entire text of "Hamlet," while a film of the 1964 Broadway production, starring Richard Burton and Hume Cronyn, is projected behind and around them.

The synchronization of stage to film is maniacally precise: The stage actors move themselves, and some free-wheeling set pieces, in tandem not only with the film actors' blocking but with camera movements, cuts and snags in the film.

Some of these visual blips have been added. The film of Burton's "Hamlet," already a low-quality live recording of a starkly casual production, has been sliced and diced to a jerky, idiosyncratic rhythm. Actors' bodies have been digitally erased, or half-erased, from many shots. And a few other "Hamlet" films - Kenneth Branagh's, Michael Almereyda's - make cameo appearances.

The effect is alternately comical, disorienting and haunting. It's a play, after all, fraught with ghosts, cracked mirror images, eavesdropping, a play-within-a-play and the dread of personal disintegration. The tweaked visuals make increasingly apt counterpoint.

Such multi-textuality isn't new for the company: It has toyed with Chekhov ("Brace-Up"), Jean Racine ("To You, the Birdie!") and Gertrude Stein ("House/Lights"). Staging a whole play as written isn't new, either: LeCompte and company last did it with O'Neill's "The Emperor Jones" and "The Hairy Ape."

"Hamlet" effectively weds two strains of the company's work. It proves such a remarkably strong marriage, in fact, that the show ends up resonating as more than just a "Hamlet" for our fast-forward, instant-replay age, but one for the ages.

HAMLET. By William Shakespeare. Directed by Elizabeth LeCompte. Through Dec. 2 at the Public Theater, 425 Lafayette St., Manhattan. For tickets, call 212-967-7555. Seen Saturday.