The bones of William Shakespeare’s great tragedy are visible in The Hamlet Dog and Pony Show, Jessica Farr and Paul Tei’s ambitious deconstruction of a world theater classic. Yet this Mad Cat Theatre Company take on Hamlet has had so much work done – the dramatic equivalent of Botox, a facelift, some anti-aging human growth hormone – that the play at its core is sometimes buried under an avalanche of ideas.
Reinterpreting Hamlet isn’t a bad thing, of course. A couple of months ago, the Asolo Repertory Theatre brought its engaging set-in-Cuba Hamlet to the South Miami-Dade Cultural Arts Center. In January GableStage will present the version of Hamlet that Miamian Tarell Alvin McCraney and Bijan Shebani created for the Royal Shakespeare Company. Mad Cat’s new take? At 2 1/2 hours, The Hamlet Dog and Pony Show is quirky, engaging, alienating, provocative, frustrating and more.
The script by Tei (who has staged the production) and Farr (who plays German playwright Heiner Müller as a Cabaret-influenced manipulative narrator) is actually a mash-up of Shakespeare, Müller’s postmodern 1977 drama Die Hamletmaschine ( The Hamletmachine) and the Mad Cat duo’s 21st century take on the drama’s characters and ideas. It incorporates a DJ (the recorded voice of Dave Corey), a Skype version of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (Erik Fabregat and Ralph de la Portilla), live musicians (Christopher Kent playing guitar and bass, Brian Sayre on percussion), singing, texting, a snippet of a poetry slam and the roaming, disembodied voice of Hamlet’s dead father (James Samuel Randolph).
The emotionally deadened Hamlet (Troy Davidson) is now the nephew/stepson of the American President Claudius (Ken Clement). He’s the guy who murdered Hamlet’s father and married Hamlet Sr.’s newly widowed Gertrude (Carey Brianna Hart). Claudius’ advisor Polonius, the vice-president, is a hand puppet operated and voiced by Clement, who utters those lines in a bad Cuban-accented English. Ophelia (Emilie Paap), Polonius’ flame-haired adopted daughter, is the moody object of Hamlet’s affections. Her bro Laertes (Giordan Diaz) is clearly crushing on her too. Hamlet’s best bud Horatio (Theo Reyna) and various minor characters like a hot-shot actor and an Irish gravedigger (Kent plays those and others) round out the cast.
The Hamlet Dog and Pony Show has plusses and minuses. Tei creates plenty of striking stage pictures in the black-box theater at The Light Box at Goldman Warehouse, a space he utilizes inventively with his talented creative team – set designer Sean McClelland, sound designer-composer Matt Corey, lighting designer Melissa Santiago Keenan and costume designer Leslye Menshouse. Davidson isn’t an electric or great Hamlet, but his performance works and he handles his dialogue well. And you can always hear him, which isn’t true of some in the cast.
Farr’s fetching Müller is omnipresent, though her German accent comes and goes, and the character’s theoretical digressions simply weigh down an already long play. The non-Shakespearean dialogue comes in a distant (and sometimes grammatically incorrect) second to the famous lines from the original. Certain references – to the Occupy movement, the Red Army, Julian Assange and so on – do nothing to illuminate or contextualize Mad Cat’s trippy reinterpretation, which substitutes a boring chess game for the deadly fencing match at the end of the play.
The Hamlet Dog and Pony Show takes on Shakespeare with an audacious, go-big-or-go-home attitude. The original wins hands down, but props to Mad Cat for adventurously challenging itself by trying to make a classic resonate in fresh ways.