Tag Archives: Tom Burch

UNC Charlotte Drops a Russian Clown into the Cogs of Heiner Müller’s “Hamletmachine”

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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

Wizards of Winging It

Theatre Review: Journey to Oz

By Perry Tannenbaum

DONNA BISE

I’m not sure what the guidelines are on picture-taking at the new Children’s Theatre production of Journey to Oz, written and directed by Christopher Parks. Three or four kids in the audience read the pre-show announcements, and I must confess that I was so focused on how well they managed to talk into the microphones planted on the ears of various adult cast members that I didn’t pay much attention to what they were saying.

Whether or not photos are actually banned, I can report that, at last Saturday afternoon’s performance, there was a photo- and movie-taking orgy as the 75-minute fantasy unfolded. And I can’t say that I heard even one discouraging word from the staffers who were ushering. Children and parents were invited onstage to play a wide assortment of characters from L. Frank Baum’s Wizard of Oz: the Cowardly Lion, the Tin Man, the Scarecrow, and even the Mayor of Munchkinland.

And of course, multiple adorable Dorothys paraded down the aisles of the McColl Family Theatre. Considering that the contours of Tom Burch’s scenic design are the book stacks we might find at a public library – not Baum’s Kansas plains or his rainbow realm of Oz – I’d say that the iPhones gleefully chronicling the misadventures of children, husbands, and moms onstage added to the giddy mix of make-believe.

Oz erudition isn’t what it once was when Judy Garland sang “Over the Rainbow” every year on TV without ever aging. So the kids and parents fetched from the audience are far more likely to wander off script than they would have a couple of decades ago. Cast members eschew the subtle discrimination of asking for volunteers, so shyness and stage fright can also come into play.

Parks has his five-member cast primed for the unexpected, that’s for sure. A kid in the first row was called on to emulate Toto, but he repeatedly emitted a bark that was no louder than a purr. The dad chosen as Mayor couldn’t bother to try a high Munchkin voice or to offer any testimony at Dorothy’s criminal trial at the Witch’s castle. Cast members didn’t skip over these difficulties, persisted in efforts to get things right, but they never mocked the amateurs. We moved right along at just the right moment.

Opportunities for us to participate helped to sustain our goodwill. When the cyclone touched down in Kansas, we were the wind. When Dorothy landed in Oz, we were the Munchkins who welcomed her. And when the hapless Scarecrow was besieged by crows, we were rallied to be their caws. Perhaps the most magical participatory moment was when we arrived in the Emerald City and a mini-battalion of kids converged upon them from the wings, surreptitiously recruited to portray the Ozians.

Journey to Oz isn’t myopically focused on the foundational Wizard narrative. Over and over, the players insert little vignettes about Baum, newspaper reactions to his books, personal anecdotes, and tidbits on his times. It’s a little like an annotated edition. We also get a sense of the breadth of Baum’s Oz series, which Parks deftly keeps unobtrusive. Our only lengthy digression into the greater Oz opus comes when the players point out to us that the adventures invariably begin with a dramatic act-of-God cataclysm. The cyclone of The Wizard gave way to an earthquake to trigger one of the many Oz sequels, then an avalanche, and – weirdest of all – a “hurricane drizzle.”

When we got down to business, the upstage library shelves parted to simulate the prairie and subsequently, our arrivals in Muchkinland and the Emerald City. The bookshelves lining the wings never disappeared, forming the backdrop for the first encounter with the Scarecrow and the witness box for the trial. The Wicked Witch of the West actually entered through a bookcase, framed in appropriately spooky light and smoke, and a few paper-cut props – a beard, a lion’s mane, and Toto – fancifully originated from a large book spread out on a lectern.

The magic is resolutely low–tech here, and the classy costumes by Jennifer Matthews aim in a totally different direction from the last Wizard of Oz produced by Children’s Theatre, when the late Alan Poindexter directed and portrayed a singularly frightful Wicked Witch. This time, the hat worn by Nicia Carla in the same role looks like it was snatched from the Cat in the Hat’s closet.

Carla is spared from extensive emceeing chores, but she does confront a Dorothy or two during the drama, proving quite adept at modulating her menace. Tiffany Bear is vaguely dressed like Dorothy and wields the Toto wicker basket and puppet, but she’s more explicitly Glinda when she’s chaperoning the anklebiter Dorothys onto the stage, a very engaging emcee.

Of the three guys in the cast, Tommy Foster and Dan Brunson pitch in most often on the hosting chores. Chaz Pofahl aligns himself with Carla at the beginning and end of the show, starting out as Uncle Henry opposite her Auntie Em, and ending as her servile Flying Monkey Lawyer at Dorothy’s trial. In between, Pofahl has a nice stint as Scarecrow.

Foster is the most gregarious of the three guys, doing more of the audience interaction and morphing into the Cowardly Lion. Brunson’s fine physical work as the Tin Woodsman steals far more of the show than you usually see. His robotic shtick before and during his therapeutic lube job vies in hilarity with Carla’s melting – under a barrage of confetti water.