Friday, April 29, 2016

Something's Rotten in the State of Denmark

In 2012, the World Shakespeare Festival did a stunning job of introducing new audiences to Shakespeare and helping mature audiences gain new insights into the Bard's plays.

As the world celebrates the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare's death (April 23, 1616), lots of people seem intent on getting a piece of the action. From video game makers to Prince Charles, folks can't resist the idea that "All the world's a stage and all the men and women merely players."

One of Shakespeare's most famous works has been subject to numerous interpretations. For some reason, the melancholy Dane seems to have a perverse attraction for perverse filmmakers. I, for one, loved 2009's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Undead.

In 2011, the San Francisco Fringe Festival hosted performances of a grand piece of silliness entitled Hamlet vs. Zombies: Something Is Rotting in the State of Denmark. Filled with moments of zaniness, Hamlet vs. Zombies takes the following liberties with the original text of Shakespeare's tragedy:
  • Claudius is a corporate weasel who has been experimenting with a zombie virus. Having convinced himself that no enemy could kill an army that's already dead, he's the only one who holds the virus's antidote (which he carries around in a test tube).
  • Hamlet's friend, Horatio, is the hysterical right-hand man who must always do the Prince's dirty work.
  • The word "dude" creeps into numerous scenes.
  • With his mother, Gertrude, crouching before him in fear, Hamlet finds himself in the perfect position "to give service to my Queen."
  • The script includes such lines as "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are not dead -- they're UNDEAD!"
  • All of the Danes have trouble identifying the zombies because they tend to walk, talk, and act like Norwegians.
  • The authors even poke fun at Gilbert & Sullivan's operetta, The Mikado, by describing the zombified ghost of Hamlet's father as "a king of shreds and patches."
Poster art for Hamlet vs Zombies

While some theatre companies choose to update Hamlet or bring in a famous actor who can drive box office sales, few can match the approach of actor David Carl, who has been touring in "Gary Busey's One-Man Hamlet" (an 80-minute vehicle featuring songs, paper puppets, and interactive video) in which he delivers a theatrical experience that has been described as both "psychotic" and "stupid fun."

One almost wishes Oprah Winfrey was still producing her famous daytime television talk show just for the thrill of hearing her bellow "YOU get to play to Hamlet! YOU get to play Hamlet! YOU get to play Hamlet! EVERYONE gets to play Hamlet!"

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That's pretty much the gimmick that inspired Mark Jackson's ambitious, provocative, and remarkably fulfilling production of Hamlet which was recently introduced by the Shotgun Players. As the audience enters the theatre, they encounter a deceptively simple set designed by Nina Ball which creates several playing areas on different vertical levels. A pair of red curtains becomes a powerful tool for entrances, exits, and separating scenes. Lined up in a row downstage are a set of prompt books with the names of the characters to be played by whichever actor is chosen at that performance.

Poster art for the Shotgun Players production of Hamlet

Billed as a game of "Hamlet roulette," Jackson uses a skull filled with scrolls of paper to determine the cast list for each performance. A member of the audience is asked to pick one scroll out of Yorick's skull (so much tidier than using real bullets in a game of Russian roulette). Once the cast list has been announced to the audience, the actors hustle backstage to prepare for the show.

Jackson's gimmick allows for 5,040 casting permutations. Not only does that go a long way toward proving the universality of Hamlet's dramatic potential, it means that no two performances will be alike. The only critical character who fails to make the cut in this version (as is often the case) is Fortinbras, the King of Norway whose speech traditionally ends the play.

The ensemble for the Shotgun Players production of Hamlet
(Photo by: Pak Han)

The cast includes seven performers who are familiar faces to Bay area audiences (El Beh, Kevin Clarke, Nick Medina, Cathleen Riddley, Megan Trout, David Sinaiko, and Beth Wilmurt). Thus, on any given night, Hamlet might be young, old, male, female, Caucasian, African American, queer, or come from a mixed-race family.

The cast for the Shotgun Players production of Hamlet
(Photo by: Pak Han)

As Jackson notes, "During our October 2015 workshop for this production, actor Kevin Clarke nutshelled something about the cast's task that also captured the underlying spirit of the production: We're not here to play any one role. We're here to do the play." In the following video clip, Jackson explains the concept in greater detail.

To suggest that Jackson's approach to Hamlet is ambitious would be a YUGE understatement when one considers that:
  • To celebrate its 25th season, Shotgun Players will be performing five plays in a rotating repertory format.
  • During last October's workshop, the cast worked as a team on editing the script and coordinating how roles would be doubled. Basic blocking for the production was ironed out so that the cast could rehearse with each person assigned a role. 
  • Many of the rehearsals followed a "round robin" format so that, after running a scene once, each cast member would switch to another role. The scene would be then repeated a total of seven times, thus allowing each artist to rehearse all of the parts in the edited script.
Cathleen Riddley (Horatio) shown with El Beh (Hamlet)
(Photo by: Pak Han)
David Sinaiko (Gertrude) with Beth Wilmurt (Hamlet)
(Photo by: Pak Han)

What I found fascinating about this production was how smoothly problems had been anticipated (whenever a character is not needed onstage, one or more actors will be seated along the theatre walls with a prompt book in hand, ready to respond to a performer's call for assistance with a line). Christine Crook's costume design is simple, but remarkably effective. In addition to Heather Basarab's lighting design, special praise should be given to the talented sound designer (Matt Stines) who transforms the extended swordplay in Act II (fought with imaginary swords) into a brilliant and thrilling duel.

Beth Wilmurt (Gertrude), Nick Medina (Claudius),
Cathleen Riddley (Ophelia), and Megan Trout (Laertes) in the
Shotgun Players production of Hamlet (Photo by: Pak Han)

At the performance I attended, Beth Wilmurt (whose work I have long admired) was chosen to play Hamlet. She delivered an athletic and deeply impressive portrayal of the melancholy Dane. Nick Medina was cast as Laertes, with the multitalented El Beh tackling the roles of Horatio and Ophelia (a particularly fascinating interpretation). Kevin Clarke appeared as Claudius and Rosencrantz, with David Sinaiko portraying Gertrude and Guildenstern. Cathleen Riddley doubled as the Ghost of Hamlet's father and a Gravedigger, while Megan Trout appeared as Polonius and a Priest.

Jackson's direction ensures that one's attention does not remain focused only on the "star" playing the lead role. With meticulous cuts that get rid of several minor characters (and minus any attempt at expensive period sets and costumes), this staging of Shakespeare's tragedy allows both the ensemble and the audience to bring something of their own to the story so that the play really is the thing. It's a fascinating experiment that I hope to revisit later this year to see how a different configuration of the cast might alter this production's interpretation of one of history's most famous plays.

Beth Wilmurt as Gertrude and Nick Medina as Claudius in the
Shotgun Players production of Hamlet (Photo by: Pak Han) 

Performances of Hamlet continue through May 15 and later in the calendar year in rotating repertory at the Shotgun Players (click here to order tickets).

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While Shakespeare's melancholy Dane ponders existential questions like "To be or not to be," a small population of contemporary Danes is dealing with a more insidious dilemma which might be paraphrased as follows:
"To eat, or not to eat -- that is the question:
Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles
And by opposing end them. To die, to sleep --
No more -- and by a sleep to say we end
The heartache, and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to. 'Tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wished....

Thus conscience does make cowards of us all,
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprise of great pitch and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry
And lose the name of action."
A scene from The Islands and the Whales

Mike Day's deeply disturbing new documentary, The Islands and the Whales (which was screened at the 2016 San Francisco International Film Festival), focuses on a cultural crisis challenging residents of the Faroe Islands who, for years, have filled their stomachs with the meat and blubber of the pilot whales they hunt and kill. Although their physical isolation may have worked to their advantage for many years, the current environmental crisis has brought a new hazard to their dinner tables.

The pilot whales they slaughter have been found to contain high levels of PCBs and mercury, a toxic element which can cause severe damage to a person's neurological system (especially when consumed at a young age). Dr. Pal Weihe (a local toxicologist) reports that after spending 30 years studying thousands of the islands' children, eating the contaminated whale meat may be linked to the high rate of Parkinson's disease in the Faroe Islands. The meat could also cause permanent cognitive impairment to children exposed to its contaminants while in the womb.

At a time when health professionals are warning about the dangers of consuming whale meat (and local species of seabirds are in catastrophic decline), the residents find themselves facing unexpected challenges.
A scene from The Islands and the Whales

For filmmaker Mike Daly, this documentary project held than the usual steep challenges.
"I wanted to make a film about how we live with the natural world in all its brutality and vulnerability. This faraway archipelago had that in spades. We were the first outsiders to descend the cliffs at night on the island of Mikines to film the gannet hunters. We had a thick rope tied around our waists with ten men holding onto it. We rappelled backwards off a 300-foot cliff into the darkness and were still on the narrow ledges at dawn when the light revealed the waves smashing on the rocks 200 feet below. We were covered in bird shit and feathers (which wasn’t the best part). Then the camera malfunctioned (also not good), the monitor turned into rainbow fuzz, and the viewfinder gave me a slight electric shock in my eyeball. I had to film the rest of the day without seeing much of what I was filming and not knowing if the camera was even recording."

A scene from The Islands and the Whales
"Gaining access to a sensitive subject and filming it with depth and intimacy takes a lot of time and patience. Cameras and sound kit are getting smaller, cheaper, less intimidating to subjects, and easier to hike with up hills. These new tools put us at a very exciting point of cinema history. The Bay Area has played a huge part of bringing this film to the screen. Based in San Francisco, The Filmmaker Fund supported the film at a crucial time in production. That support also allowed us to push new technology in post-production. We recorded the whole film in ambisonic sound (which allows us to remodel in post-production with not only a 360ยบ sound field but also the vertical axis). This should be the first Dolby Atmos documentary and ambisonic sourced feature."
A scene from The Islands and the Whales

The Islands and the Whales is not a film for the faint of heart. Despite some magnificent cinematography, watching Danes wade into the shallow waters of a cove to participate in a cetacean bloodbath may be too much for some audiences to watch. Witnessing the process by which residents of the Faroe Islands routinely catch, pluck, and harvest seabirds may be distressing for some viewers. However, the horror of a pregnant woman worrying whether her child will be born with brain damage as a result of mercury poisoning is far more unsettling.

A scene from The Islands and the Whales

An isolated population which has grown up looking to the sea for a very specific food source (and which takes great pride in its whaling culture) has been forced to re-examine its lifestyle choices for the sake of its future generations. The choice is obviously tearing at the heart of many people in the Faroe Islands.

In 1826, a French physician named Anthelme Brillat-Savarin (who some credit with the concept of today's popular Paleo diet) wrote "Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are." Fast forward 190 years to 2016 and the whaling families of the Faroe Islands are struggling with a frightening new interpretation of "You are what you eat."

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