Saturday, December 26, 2009

Hamlet, Austin Drama Club, December 10 - January 2

Going to an Austin Drama Club production is like Alice's falling down the rabbit hole into Wonderland. Their venue is a house just off E. 7th Street in Austin, Texas, and you enter through a scruffy back yard surrounded by a chain link fence. When my son and I arrived, Jennifer Fielding was standing by the gate on back yard duty. Her question was, "Have you been here before?"

It wasn't a speakeasy challenge question, but rather an offer of guidance. Finding one's way into the theatre space isn't easy the first time, for that small house has been converted with curtains and a miscellany of improvised, tiered seating into a 25-seat ad hoc theatre. Sightlines are so constrained that three closed-circuit televisions offer alternative views into the corners of the playing space. Lighting consists of inexpensive floorlamps and wall-mounted goosenecks wrapped with aluminum foil and masked with gels in deep red and blue.

You could call it underground theatre, except that it isn't underground. Japhy and Ellen Fernandes and friends are more of a cult, one that is dedicated to dark and somewhat deranged productions of the classics, each done on half a shoestring. Their output is impressive. In 2009 they filled out Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays with three-week runs of
Talk Radio, Hamlet, Othello, Macbeth, Fool for Love, Henry V, The Wizard of Oz, Richard III, After the Fall and now, again, Hamlet, their fifth presentation in three years of the epic of the melancholy Dane.

Under Japhy's direction, this is a six-person Hamlet, edited down for a two-hour staging that includes two ten-minute intermissions. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern disappear -- as they did in Laurence Olivier's 1948 version. Also gone are Fortinbras and the gravedigger, much to my disappointment. What remains is a quirky Freudian psychodrama in which Shakespeare's language shines fitfully out of the dark.

The character transformations are often striking and often inexplicable. For example, Rob Novak's Hamlet dresses in white tights and short dark tunic but sports a Tyrolean hat and an ice ax, as if old Europe had somehow slipped in space and time. Casey Allen as Leartes (sic) looks like one of the three musketeers. Although Christopher Harris proved himself an articulate and focused actor in their previous Macbeth, here plays Horatio as a dimwit with a pistol.

The favor that Kat Eason as a juicy Ophelia in tight bustier seeks to return to Hamlet is a Playboy magazine with centerfold deliberately unfolded. The Player King phones in his performance -- literally -- and The Mousetrap is an eerie black-and-white pantomime on the television sets. Julio Mella's Polonius shuffles and mumbles. When Hamlet skewers him through the arras, neither Hamlet nor Gertrude investigates the identity of the corpse. After Hamlet berates her, Ellen Fernandes as Gertrude responds with scornful laughter when her son sees the Ghost.

Playing Claudius, director Japhy Fernandes applies an appropriately theatrical demeanor and uses impressive tone and phrasing, although in an occasionally flutey voice. The strength of his personalization of the confused king carries over the other actors like a big clear-channel radio transmitter dominating other signals.

The cast surprises us with the entirely unexpected and unforeshadowed means of Ophelia's demise, a plot development that suggests a rich and enigmatic undertext. There's madness in this Denmark, but Hamlet isn't the lunatic.

The Fernandes couple and friends are waving torches in a menacing darkness. There's potential treasure there, but unfortunately it is never fully revealed. If you can bear with ambiguity, you'll take away some food for thought. And perhaps you'll develop a taste for alt-Shakespeare.

Click to view ADC Hamlet slideshow on MySpace

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