By Perry Tannenbaum
March 19, 2016, Charlotte, NC – More than with most scripts, it’s difficult to say what exactly Heiner Müller had in mind when he wrote Hamletmachine in 1977. Performances of Müller’s plays were banned in East Germany until the fall of the Berlin Wall, so the 1979 world premiere was presented – in translation – in Paris, and when Müller himself finally directed the piece for the first time in his homeland, it was as the play-within-a-play in a far larger 1990 production of Hamlet, presumably in his own translation since that what was what he had completed before embarking on his own.
Looking at this script, which occupies just three pages in The Wadsworth Anthology of Drama (4th ed.), I’d have to say it’s presumptuous to call it a play at all, for it doesn’t offer a list of characters and doesn’t actually assign any dialogue to anyone until the second of its five parts. We can hardly greet that as a clarifying moment when Müller writes, “Ophelia (Chorus/Hamlet): I am Ophelia.” Nor is the custom of attribution religiously observed afterwards in a text that often resembles T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land in its stream-of-consciousness style and allusiveness. We should not be surprised that the current production at UNC Charlotte’s Robinson Hall, presented by the College of Arts + Architecture at the Anne R. Belk Theater, not only boasts three directors but also three Ophelias and four Hamlets in a production that clocked in at just under 38 minutes.
A wide latitude of interpretation is built into the text, which explains the fact that one Japanese production lasted 12 hours. That surely isn’t the outer limit, for Müller decrees “Snow. Ice Age,” after the executions of Marx, Lenin, and Mao at the end of Part IV. Yet I must say that the UNC Charlotte production follows the text far more closely – and recognizably – than the previous production I saw in Charlotte, presented by Off-Tryon Theatre Company as part of a double bill with Rosencrantz and Guilderstern Are Dead in 2005. Leading the all-female directing team, UNCC assistant professor Robin Witt has eliminated (among other things) the appearances of King Claudius, the striptease by Ophelia, and the gravestones or lecterns that should be the university of the dead in Part III. A whole motif involving Hamlet’s armor and his axe is altered beyond recognition, and the executions of the Communist trinity, which should have been done by Hamlet with that axe, are now done bloodlessly by hanging.
I’m not sure whether there was a malfunction in Benjamin J. Stickels’ sound design, but I never discerned the voices of Lenin, Mao, and Marx, though three are listed for them in the program booklet. Similarly, the men and women dressed in white by costume designer Beth Killion are all designated as Chorus in the playbill, so I wasn’t aware until later, when I’d revisited the script, that the segment choreographed by Alex Baesen was a ballet of the dead women. It looked more like a dance of angels to me, though the woman with the little stove around her head should have told me that she was a suicide or a Holocaust victim.
There are also additions to the script by Witt and her team, including Marc Smith as a German Speaker and, most conspicuously, Kineh N’Gaojia as a Russian Clown who beautifully sings Leon Russell’s “A Song for You” for no particular reason. Before her concluding monologue as Ophelia Wheelchair, Raven Monroe inserts Todd Rundgren’s “Can We Still Be Friends.” Of course, when she begins her monologue declaring, “This is Electra speaking,” and ends by vaguely alluding to the Manson Family and Sqeaky Fromme, it’s hard to be sure who Monroe is as the lights go down on her in her wheelchair.
The sinew of Müller’s text is given when Hamlet Flag (née The Actor Playing Hamlet) has his long monologue in Part IV, “Pest in Buda / Battle for Greenland.” I’d say that the upshot of this ramble, ably delivered by Matt Miller, is that the revolutionaries who had ushered in the triumph of Communism in Eastern Europe had succeeded so well that they had rendered the possibility of current and future revolutions extinct. Looking frankly at himself, the Actor Playing Hamlet asserts that the Hamlet who once was, the brooding assassin who engineered a coup d’état, no longer exists and can no longer exist. The executions that follow are merely wishful thinking – by a populace of Hamlets who remained too indecisive too long.
Jamie Gonzalez was my favorite among the Ophelias. Her heart is not visibly a clock as the text demands. Instead, she is wheeled onstage as Ophelia Bed to deliver her lurid monologue, giving her a kinship with the Ophelia Wheelchair to come. No such connections are attempted among the Hamlets, since all four of them parade in front of us at the outset. Noah Tepper seems like he will be dominant as Hamlet Skull, conversing with a puppet Horatio (Brittany White), but he is succeeded by Tykiique Cuthkelvin as Hamlet Book and Jennifer Huddleston as Hamlet Axe before Miller’s Flag takes over. The gender bending in Witt’s casting becomes plausible enough when Miller’s Hamlet announces, “I want to be a woman.” He gets his wish when the Chorus surrounds him and dresses him up as Ophelia, but he’s back in tacky 1970s leisure wear by the time he launches into his big monologue.
While the thrust of Müller’s script is unmistakably an outcry against living under totalitarianism, its production at UNCC paradoxically affirms the benefits of dictatorship. It’s not a total coincidence that the most admired production of this piece, the 1986 revival directed by Robert Wilson (even Müller preferred it to his own), was presented at another university, NYU. Not only can university professors ignore commercial viability when deciding what they present on their stages, they can lavish resources upon each project that leave the prudential considerations of capitalism deeper in the dust.
That is the true wonder to behold when comparing the staging at Robinson Hall to the Off-Tryon version I saw in 2005. Tom Burch’s scenic design lifts this production to a frightful level of gritty German expressionism that is simply phenomenal, mirrored by the imaginative artistry of the props and costumes. Primitive stairways lead up to a platform where the mutilated German Speaker can babble, and the wall behind that platform is large enough to project the titles of each of the five parts we’re watching. When the script alludes to a television, Burch can deploy four of them, each one broadcasting nothing more than white noise.
The obvious reward of such excess is a Hamletmachine that is vivid and engaging – but no less mystifying than it is on the page. No doubt the post-performance discussion following the Saturday evening performance was helpful for amazed and baffled audience members who remained afterwards, and another discussion is scheduled with the cast and designers after the March 21 performance. Otherwise, there’s plenty to be gleaned from dramaturg Jeanmarie Higgins’ program note and the handy Tumblr website she and her dramaturgy students have established online.
© 2016 CVNC + Perry Tannenbaum