East German playwright Heiner Muller is not well-known in America, so the Lida Project's production of HamletMachine presents a rare opportunity for Denver audiences to experience his wild woolliness. And what an experience: Such extravagant craziness is hardly ever this controlled and involving.
The play is based on Shakespeare's Hamlet--a deconstructed and reassembled Hamlet, that is, with a few spare parts left over and any number of bizarre additions. At once familiar and utterly foreign, it is indeed a well-oiled and monstrous machine. Although everything works, it's hard to decide what it all means. But then, you're not supposed to decide that question. This is a dialectic without a synthesis--an argument without a resolution.
The theater is a small mechanic's garage, refitted as a theater. The stage is covered in grass; a tree stands at one side and a refrigerator at the other. At the back of the stage, a wall of computer monitors and televisions reminds us just what age we inhabit, while a sheet of plastic across the front of the stage obscures the action for the first few minutes like a dense fog or a bad dream. As the lights dim, voices whisper or intone conflicting statements; assertions that "I am Hamlet" compete with claims that all political systems must be overthrown. Hamlet himself (the riveting Nils Swanson) then yanks down the plastic in a violent burst of self-assertion.
As Muller's theatrical experiment progresses, the actors pantomime the last scene of the Shakespearean drama in slow motion, and Horatio (played with elegant gravity by Katherine Guthrie) buries the bodies in the plastic curtain. Right from the beginning of this sequence, every attention has been paid to stunning visual arrangements. And as the characters come back to life--they're like insects emerging from a giant cocoon--the look is organic, strange and scary.
There are many declamations here about the destruction of Europe by both communism and capitalism. The same actor who plays Hamlet's father also plays his Uncle Claudius--and both sides of the political spectrum. Hamlet acts out a raunchy Oedipal complex with a lovely, buxom Gertrude (Tara M.E. Thompson). And the real hero of this weird tale is Ophelia, who's betrayed on all sides. Her cry "Of most ladies most deject" rings powerfully true--all revolutions betray women, Muller seems to say.
But this is no defense of women, either. It is a masculine, aggressive, tormented, angry and highly intellectual work. And the Lida Project's talented cast packs it with emotions so varied and yet so tightly managed that the result is quite breathtaking. Those emotions belong mostly to the actors, not the playwright, however. Muller's work could be just as effective done icily, without emotional investment at all.
In the end, Muller chooses neither the stifling ideology of Lenin and Mao nor the sentimental platitudes of Western capitalism. He emphatically does not want to buy the world a Coke.
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So what sociopolitical system does Muller choose? The playwright once wrote, "I believe in conflict. I don't believe in anything else." And conflict is really all you get from Muller--not the synthesis you're used to in art. When the actor playing Hamlet suddenly yanks out his driver's license to prove he isn't Hamlet but Nils Swanson, he thrusts the viewer into one last conflict; there are no illusions left. This is the actor himself speaking to us. But even he has one last theatrical trick up his sleeve, one that defies reality even as it appears realistic.
The Lida Project is one of the two or three youngsters among Denver's theater companies that are showing signs not only of promise but of guts and brains. Its production of Daughters of Lot by company member Brian Lewis has been accepted into the New York International Fringe Festival, a prestigious event featuring cutting-edge theater works from around the world. And with HamletMachine, Lida has matched performance-art daring with the disciplined professionalism of the theater.
HamletMachine, through May 11 at the Lida Project, 50 South Cherokee Street, 433-8646.