Lemonade: A Play of World Domination
The New York International Fringe Festival
Hamlet Shut Up
What does Hamlet read, Polonius asks the troubled Danish prince in Act II of the play named after him. We all know the famous reply, but “words, words, words” are the last thing you should expect at Hamlet Shut Up. This production of Los Angeles’s Sacred Fools Theater Company, playing for the next week at New York’s Fringe Festival, delivers the whole of Shakespeare’s play in a frantic hour and a half, with barely a sentence uttered.
One of the crown jewels of the English language, stripped of its poetry and presented as a silent movie on speed? Put down your high dudgeon, please. Jonas Oppenheim’s breathless adaptation reveals Shakespeare’s magnum opus for the sordid family saga it’s always been, but notches up the wackiness a bit. (All right, more than a bit.) Is a tug-of-war game with a crown between Hamlet (Derek Mehn) and Claudius (Stephen Simon), for example, really so far-fetched? Or the presence of a floating Revenge-o-Meter that charts Hamlet’s ever-shifting mental state? Or two yellow-and-black buzzing hand puppets that rub the Prince all over while the actors wielding them wear signs reading “2B” and “Not”? Uh, okay, perhaps that is stretching it a little. But without real speech (though the actors do grunt, sigh, and gasp), trippingly on the tongue or otherwise, the soliloquies had to be the first things to go.
Otherwise, the show crams an astonishing amount of event into its reduced package. No, you don’t get everything — there’s no Fortinbras, for one thing. And certain character choices are almost damagingly reductive — is there really nothing more significant to Gertrude (Kimberly Atkinson) than a drinking problem, and how exactly can Horatio (Victor Isaac) ascend to the throne? No one without a strong knowledge of the original will understand the depths of the story from this treatment, that’s for sure. But from Hamlet and Claudius’s screwed-up relationship and the “play’s the thing” scene to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s boat journey and Ophelia (a manic Tegan Ashton Cohan) drowning in Hamlet’s rejection and then just drowning, nearly all the other plot points are here and surprisingly lucid, even given Josh Senick’s appropriately silly piano accompaniment (the Murder, She Wrote theme song is heard while Hamlet is scribing his play, for instance).
It’s all funny, in much the way that The 39 Steps is funny — and it might actually go overboard even more often. Polonius (played as a doddering cell-phone addict by Jay Bogdanowitsch), probably doesn’t need to spend multiple minutes warning Ophelia about the dangers of premarital sex using a castle guard as a prop; a lengthy Yorick flashback isn’t especially useful or amusing; and I still can’t figure out why there’s an entire subplot about a shark. (Is that something from the First Quarto?) But for bringing the classic of classics down to Fringe Festival size and attitude, Hamlet Shut Up is masterful in its way, and a deft reminder that sometimes silence is the best way to elicit deafening screams of laughter.
VENUE #5: The First Floor Theatre @ LA MAMA
Lemonade: A Play of World Domination
Lemonade is a refreshing drink only when its balance between sweet and sour is just right — which, alas, is different for everyone. So I have to assume that someone, somewhere has the profound sweet tooth necessary to enjoy the shock-inducing cloyingness and simple-minded writing of Lemonade: A Play of World Domination, but I’m hard-pressed to predict who, at any age, that could possibly be.
To swallow Jais Brohinsky's play, you must accept that the world can convert to and from capitalism, communism, and statist utopianism on a dime; that a senator could own a treasured cat and not realize she's actually a person wearing fake ears; that the American public can be cowed into believing that air and sunshine must be paid for, and that flowers are evil; and that the last 80 years of Method acting theory never occurred.
Brohinsky's story, such as it is, suggests the vast corporatization of the world, such that the media, law enforcement, business owners, and the government are all on the same payroll. (Okay, perhaps that isn't so far-fetched.) The influence of these groups’ collusion against ordinary people expands to such a degree that the only possible solution is for a new breed of business-hating hippies to be born, who go around planting flowers until they somehow rise to the top of the food chain.
It’s all intended, I suppose, as a Big Business satire, but is so extreme in its writing and especially its acting that gleaning anything insightful or even recognizable from it is impossible. Over the course of 85 paralyzing minutes, which David Denson has directed with the subtlety of a 17-car pileup, a series of grimacing characters ranging from a robotic newsman to a business titan to a policeman and a human cloning specialist bump into each other, and act out "funny" scenes that prove the absurdism inherent in everyday life when it's controlled by unseen forces in far-off metropolises.
This concept could inspire a worthy story, but not with the inhuman, Saturday-morning-cartoon treatment Brohinsky and Denson give it here. I'll not demean Lemonade's actors by naming them, but their performances are so roundly excruciating that they can only be executing the playwright’s and director’s intentions. Perhaps Brohinsky and Denson wanted to warning about the dangers of government and business become indistinguishable, but the results they’ve obtained in Lemonade will only leave a bitterly sour taste in your mouth.
VENUE #8: Tom Noonan's Paradise Factory
Tickets online at FringeNYC Tickets