Grinding gears – “Hamletmachine: The Arab Spring” at City Garage

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Image courtesy City Garage

“If you feel dissatisfaction
Strum your frustrations away
Some people may prefer action
But, gimme a folk song any old day”
— Tom Lehrer “Folksong Army”

Heiner Müller adapted Hamlet to his purposes in 1977 when the Germanies were split and Moscow ruled with no end in sight. ‘Hamletmachine’ has since become a darling of the late-night set and the adaptation further reschnootered according to the needs and means of its producers.  Magda Romanska flipped the point of view in ‘Opheliamachine’ presented by City Garage in 2013 and now the Garagistes take a second try at the original.  It is a tough slog even for the interested, receptive participant.

It is unclear whether the playwright gave explicit permission for his six page text to be freely interpreted and amended but that’s what happens to it.   The tyrannical regime is now in a generic middle east, the people revolt, and the fallout is unpredictable.  What this has to do with two Hamlets, Gertrude in a wedding dress, Marx in a wheelchair, and  Ophelia in a bomb vest is anyone’s guess.  Video projections cover rioters, dead children, and modern mullahs preaching holy war.  Bits and pieces of Shakespeare peek out in a turbulent, loud, and ultimately opaque river of words.   A bizarre fashion show emceed by a latter-day Marie Antoinette stands out as a caution against the consequences of unchecked inequality. Read it as a fundamental difference between West and East, proof of their equivalence, or anything else that catches fancy. For those who believe no explanation is necessary, for those who don’t none is possible.

It is no fault of City Garage that the Paris attacks  coincided with the day of the opening.  The preshow chatter was the normal silliness, easily silenced with headphones.  Duncombe’s short curtain speech suggested that the events raised important questions in context of the play and invited dialogue after the performance.  Normally it is best to leave opening night parties to  friends and family to chatter with the cast.  The gravity of the day’s events led to unmet hopes for a little more substance.  The company proudly quotes Brecht’s maxim that Art is a hammer with which to shape reality. While it may be true, the  Shakespeare machines are weak evidence.  The contrast between action and contemplation is much more stark in Shaw who wrote “Nothing is ever done in this world until men are prepared to kill one another if it is not done.”  While this can be easily rationalized as strategy versus tactics, it is a better representation of history and a grisly predictor of our future.

‘Hamletmachine’ is the first salvo in City Garage’s Post-Modern Shakespeare Series. It runs until 20 December 2015 followed by Young Jean Lee’s ‘Lear’ and Duncombe’s ‘Othello/Desdemona’ in February and April of 2016.

Hamletmachine: The Arab Spring
by Heiner Müller, adapted by Charles Duncombe
Directed by Frédérique Michel

Fridays, Saturdays 8:00pm; Sundays, 3pm through 20 December 2015
Admission: $25; Students w/ID & Seniors (65+): $20; Sundays “Pay-What-You-Can” (at the door only)
No performances Friday 11/20 and Friday 11/27.

City Garage
Bergamot Station Arts Center
Building T1
2525 Michigan Ave.
Santa Monica, CA 90404
Purchase online at Brown Paper Tickets
Box Office: 310-453-9939

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