Originally produced in 1979, Dogg’s Hamlet and Cahoot’s Macbeth technically are separate one-act plays (combined running time is two hours). But it would be unusual to see one without the other, especially since the former intrudes on the latter toward the end of the evening. In each play, Stoppard takes the Shakespeare tragedy indicated in its title and turns a performance of it into a statement on what might be called the unstoppable contagion of dissent.
Of the two, Dogg’s Hamlet is the more lightweight work, playfully toying with the idea of secret codes used in dissident circles. A group of students is putting on a production of Hamlet, but confusion reigns because they speak in a language known as Dogg and really do not understand English, much less Shakespearean English. All nonsense breaks loose when a Cockney deliveryman named Easy shows up with a load of materials to be used to set up the stage. He can’t understand them; they can’t understand him. And the audience is left to sort things out as the play devolves into a Three Stooges routine (including the face slapping).
Eventually, Easy begins to catch on to the lingo, and everyone manages to put the set together just in time for the performance. And what a performance it is, for Stoppard has created a 15-minute version of Hamlet that captures enough of the story to make sense to those who are familiar with it, yet is filled with wild and crazy mismatches of lines and acting styles, along with mispronunciations galore (“a little more than kin, and less than kinned” our Hamlet says of Claudius). To top it off, the play ends with an encore, a one-minute Hamlet that leaves us with a stageful of dead bodies and a hearty chuckle of pleasure.
Following intermission, we move into the more richly developed Cahoot’s Macbeth. To begin with, it is based on an actual historic event, a series of “living room” stagings of Macbeth presented by Czech dissident writer Pavel Kohout after being locked out of the state-run theaters. We find ourselves at such a performance, one that is not being played for laughs at all.
After a time, the play is interrupted by a Communist functionary, the Inspector, who is there to spread anxious fear among the actors as well as among members of the audience — for the fourth wall is breached and we are ordered to stay in our seats with our hands on our heads. With Cahoot’s Macbeth, both the writing and the performance take us into a paranoid world, which becomes increasingly absurd as Easy — the Cockney deliveryman from Dogg’s Hamlet — shows up and starts spouting Dogg to everyone. Gradually the Macbeth players pick up on the language until everyone but the Inspector and his police colleagues are speaking it.
Together, the pair of one-acts make for a compelling evening of theater. The cast of mostly Equity actors is consistently strong, with a couple of standouts: Antonio Edwards Suarez as Macbeth, Jason O’Connell as the creepy Inspector, and John Lenartz, who bridges the two plays in the role of Easy.
Director Kevin Confoy not only keeps things moving smoothly through the Alice-In-Wonderland world that Stoppard has created, but also smartly guides the cast in the use of movement and body language to communicate the language of Dogg to us, so that we get the gist of everything that is said.
With regard to Dogg, we are instructed early on that “you don’t learn it; you catch it.” So, with that in mind, I’d like to thank the Phoenix Theatre Ensemble in the language of the evening.
Dogg’s Hamlet, Cahoot’s Macbeth