The human eyes can only sense a vanishingly small part of the energy that makes up our Universe. The wonders and horrors out there are mostly invisible to us. Fortunately, we have instruments that can collect where we cannot and translators that can shift those sights and sounds that we may perceive them. The images that come out of our observatories great and small are almost always in false color. There is nothing intrinsically hot about red or cool about blue yet these associations, in expert and honest hands, can reveal something about the world to the layman.
‘Hamlet’ by The Four Clowns takes such a look at the Shakespeare’s violent, philosophical, mad, and maddening Denmark in a limited run at Shakespeare Festival, LA. This play has always been fodder for interpretation, especially whether the title character is on either side of the fine line between sanity and madness or whether he’s straddling it for his own purposes. Director/adapter Turner Munch has subtracted some of the themes and turned up the gain on the fantastical and bitterly funny elements of the story. It is a false color palette entirely appropriate for a troupe of nine actual clowns playing over a dozen roles. Who would have thought the old play to have such humors in it?
It is, not surprisingly, hugely physical with pratfalls aplenty and a lot of clever business with props to convey the sometimes suffocating confines of that particular castle. Andrew Eiden’s Hamlet starts off as a prop himself, shaped and molded by his and Ophelia’s families. He quickly brushes them off and transforms into a Hyde-like maniac capable of any torture. His interrogations of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (Dave Honigman, Tyler Bremer, and vice-versa), two of the play’s three manifest clowns are violent and brutal. Elizabeth Godley’s charming, porcelain Ophelia fares little better at his hand. Scotty Farris’s thickly bearded Polonius looks straight out of any LA theatre’s production of [ugh] Chekhov. He is especially put upon, killed with courtesy, and then brought back as one of the gravediggers. Connor Kelly-Eiding is put upon by just about everyone as a Lisa Loopner version of Horatio. Joe DeSoto shatters the fourth wall early as the Ghost and comes through it again as Laertes. It all hangs together very nicely. A father-daughter reunion told in shadow for the fleetest of seconds is a blessed moment of tenderness amid the gore and packs a wallop.
Munch stresses repetition and pauses to set the nerves on edge and as a guide to what lurks underneath. Pinter could be well pleased. He also reworks the text to meet the needs of time and the troupe. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern do get theirs for example but not at the hands of a foreign king. The sadly uncredited sound design frames the slapstick nicely but truly shines in the darker stretches with an eerie piano (Visions Fugitives?) ratcheting the tension. Though it is a violent play as written, it culminates here in something out of Sam Peckinpah.
This version runs ninety minutes, about half the span of a full production. In that compression, some loss is inevitable and no two viewers will agree on specifics. The leads, clowns though they may be, mostly handle the demands of Shakesperean language. A shade less R&G and a little more time on the meatier dialogues would have been nice. That’s a minor point in a show that is honest about its purpose and commits to its choices. It is getting repetitive to compare The Four Clowns to other area companies. Indeed Nancy Keystone who has done similar reimaginings is explicity credited in the program. But, perhaps they along with others are together part of something larger. This is not a ‘Hamlet’ for purists but those with the capacity for fun and a little give and take should put it on their calendar quickly. It runs only through 10 October.
And, as we look at the Presidential campaign now underway, remember: When insanity becomes normal, bet on the clowns.
Four Clowns presents Hamlet
by William Shakespeare
adapted & directed by Turner Munch
September 18 – October 10, 2015
Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm
8 shows only
at Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles
1238 W 1st Street
Los Angeles, CA 90026
Tickets via Squadup.com