Friday, January 2, 2009

World's Fastest Hamlet and Heron & Crane, December 31

Sometimes you master the venue and other times the venue masters you.

We went to downtown Austin on the afternoon of the First Night celebrations, particularly to check out the theatre events advertised for the HBMG Foundation stage in the park just under the south end of the First Street Bridge.

Except that there was no stage there. HBMG certainly must have encouraged and subsidized the schedule of events for that locale, but the participants were left to define a playing space as best they could.

That didn’t much bother the Capoeira group, who set up their drums and percussion on the sidewalk and spent a cheery, thumping half-hour or so demonstrating that graceful, dance-like martial art from Brazil. They gathered a good crowd. Some folks watched from the bridge railings, above, and others stood or sat on the curbside.

The second spot, at 3:30, was reserved for Austin Shakespeare’s World’s Fastest Hamlet. They had chosen to set up beneath the bridge itself, using the road as the playing space and encouraging spectators to seat themselves next to it.

They had done their homework – not only did they plant a thicket of microphones, but they had also secured professional stage lighting up under the girders of the bridge.

A glib and cheery Master of Ceremonies took the microphone as soon as the Capoeira group finished. Many of the spectators attracted to the martial arts display good naturedly strolled the 20 or 30 feet over to the performance space. Quite a few of us plopped our rears down in the fine dirt next to the street, and others gathered on the incline beneath the bridge.

Hamlet done in fifteen minutes can be played only as wild street farce, particularly since the company consisted of only four players for all parts. Director Beth Burns discharged them at the august edifice of the play like a load of Silly Putty, and they were all over the place.

(Left to right: Gwen Kelso animating the ghost and playing female parts, Ted Meredith as Shakespeare and others, Justin Scalise as Hamlet, and Robert Deike as Horatio, Polonius and Laertes).

This was a very silly and very funny version of Hamlet, played at maximum volume and picked up very well by the sound system. The theatrical lighting dispelled the shadows normally lurking under the bridge in mid-afternoon. The show occurred relatively early in the First Night program, so there was little noise from other activities in the parks.

It was all clowning, made even more funny because the players were quoting verbatim from Shakespeare’s revered text. Justin Scalise put no darkness in this Hamlet; he was as animated and silly as a Road Runner cartoon.

Some of my favorite moments

The opening scene, with guards on the ramparts:

(The ghost that pops up next to the moon turns out to be a puppet styled after the “Ghostbusters” emblem.)

Hamlet and Polonius: “Words, words, words!”

Hamlet confronts mom Gertrude in her chambers:

Claudius decides that Hamlet must to England after the killing of Polonius:

And of course, the finale:

Once they’d finished, to cheers from the audience, our players over-topped themselves by doing a two-minute Hamlet, followed by a ten-second Hamlet.

Justin Scalise is without doubt a Shakespeare buff. He recently played a fine Feste the clown in Twelfth Night at the Scottish Rite Theatre, and he delivered some more fractured Shakespeare at Frontera Fest (he plays Hamlet in the “O Feel Ya!” parody, available on YouTube). And the narrowsheet passed out at this show promises “for those interested in more Hamlet, there will be a fall production featuring some of Austin’s finest actors. For information, inquire a”

The following act was a no-show, and the crowd dissolved quickly. We strolled the park, enjoyed the gathering crowds and examined the towering wooden clock that was to be burned just hours later. On the north side of Lady Bird Lake, someone had set up a powerful sound system and was inviting passersby to express their New Year's wishes. The result was a loud, perfectly audible sequence of banalities that did not stop for the rest of the time we were there.

The sun had gone lower in the sky, sending broad yellow shafts of light across the dusty park. When we came back in half an hour to the HBMG venue, the DA! Theatre Collective was setting up for their touring children’s show, Heron & Crane.

At the 4:30 showtime there was almost no audience. The DA! players had set up on the road. Almost without exception the people who showed up for the presentation elected to sit on the incline, behind a dirt strip about 50 feet wide. I joined them, with the perspective shown above. One man broke the pattern and plumped his rear down in the dirt just by the stage; I went and joined him. Then I stood up for a moment and looked back. The perspective from there shows the great divide between stage and public.

The players from the DA! Collective had an inadequate sound system, which was their primary additional disadvantage; in addition, as their audience strained to hear them, the idiot chatter booming across the lake continually interrupted their lines.

Occasional joggers and bikers along the roadway diverted across the dirt, and at times sculling races crossed dramatically from far, far stage right to far, far stage left.

Heron & Crane
is a charming, whimsical two-character play, based on a Russian folk tale. In these circumstances it was a beautiful gem cast onto a sandpile.

As a start to the participatory session, the actors encourage the audience to make the sounds of wind, bubbles, frogs, bumblebees, and storms.

The story is simple: Michelle Brandt is Heron, a sweet but lonely bird living by a pond; Jude Hickey arrives as Crane, the boisterous, bumbling newcomer to the neighborhood. The story runs through the course of a year, as Heron and Crane discover one another, play, quarrel, dance, and make up. The wind, bubbles, frogs, bumblebees and storms periodically occur, to the delight of the spectators. The actors danced to recorded music at several points in the action.

Language is simple; concepts are easy for children to grasp as the two friends compete, play, differ and reconcile. Brandt and Hickey do lovely bird struts. (Click on images to enlarge.)

This is a play written for close-up participation. Jude Hickey gave us the gosh-gee-whiz attitude and throwaway energy of a clever four-year-old, and Michelle Brandt was as cheery and attractive as any child's very best friend. But after a cranky, nonsensical argument over pumpkin carving, as the play's year draws to a close the friends are not speaking.

Moderator Kirk German then engages children directly, asking what the two bird friends might do to overcome their difficulties. ("Say you're sorry!" "Play together -- have a flying race!")

The actors carry out the audience's suggestions and bring their bird year to a cheerful, successful close.

The venue was a disaster for this delicate, friendly presentation, which in the comfortable and non-distracting confines of a classroom or activity hall must awaken wonder and great enthusiasm with its target audience. Make-believe is natural and spontaneous for the very young, and the lessons in this simple morality play are easy to grasp. And anyone with an ounce of wonder left in his or her spirit would be pleased to make the acquaintance of such engaging characters as these.

That was certainly the opinion of the two tiny youngsters who rushed the stage after the conclusion of the play.

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