The action of Hamlet all hinges on an injunction by the ghost of Hamlet's father, who appears on a bitter cold night to tell the prince he must kill his murderous and usurping uncle. Everything that happens in Something Is Rotten is also set in motion by a ghost -- in this case, the ghost of a pink-striped sock that insists the three performers mount a production of the Shakespeare play.
Julius, the weirdly smiling, dim-witted but steel-willed owner of the sock, who's played by Evan Weissman, bullies two friends, Harold and George, into fulfilling the command. But Harold is doubtful. Erik Edborg gives Harold the stern expression and deep, haunted eyes of Samuel Beckett, though not the intellect. He's basically puzzled and resentful through the entire evening. The cast is rounded out by the star of the play, Brian Colonna's George, a temperamental, hypermanic Hamlet whose approach offers a telling contrast to the subdued -- though very different -- performances of the other two. That is, when he's not dropping into sudden narcoleptic trances.
We never really know exactly who these men are or why they're on stage. George is clearly an actor -- or at least someone who wants to act -- but Julius and Harold are stumbling amateurs. They discuss their roles and argue about how to act them, bicker, shush each other and improvise when panicked.
Since this is a Buntport Theater production, the show is as ingenious as it is low-tech, and a lot of intensely clever and hilarious things happen. Edborg plays both King Claudius and Queen Gertrude, often at the same time. For the king, he wears a huge mask, the mouth of which he's forced to manipulate with his hands. This means that Weissman has to provide his gestures, pulling on a pair of elbow-length gloves to do it. For the queen, Edborg undergoes a costume change that you simply have to see for yourself.
Ophelia is played by a goldfish -- a real goldfish in a bowl -- which makes the queen's line "Your sister's drowned, Laertes" particularly poignant. Ophelia's father, Polonius, is a Teddy Ruxpin bear with a tape of the lines in his furry back. The family scenes can get tricky. "Sometimes the fish doesn't look at the bear," one of the actors complains, and for the next several minutes, we in the audience twist our necks to see which way Ophelia is facing. This is hard to do, since she's quite a small fish and does a lot of aimless circling.
Laertes is a Tonka truck. A bright-yellow Tonka truck. There's a forklift in the front that comes in handy when Laertes is forced into a duel with Hamlet.
Though only three Buntporters appear on stage, Something Is Rotten was written by all seven company members -- Matt Petraglia, Erin Rollman, Hannah Duggan and SamAnTha Schmitz, as well as Edborg, Weissman and Colonna -- and they are as agile with words as with their visual jokes. There's also a pre-play warmup by Janice Haversham, who looks and sounds exactly like Hannah Duggan but cannot, in fact, be Duggan, because we all know she left for New York some months ago. Haversham shows off her musical instruments, which include a tambourine and a triangle, and provides smooth, folksy singing and an introduction to Shakespeare for those of us who have trouble understanding his work -- an introduction that includes the information that ants are known to count their steps and it's hard to make a pie crust.
You'll be reassured to know that the requisite catharsis-providing pity and terror aren't absent from this interpretation. The shrieks of grief and rage that rend the final scene would move a statue to tears -- albeit tears of laughter.
Thaddeus Phillips of Lucidity Suitcase, who trained at Colorado College with the Buntporters and shares their anarchic humor and innovative relationship with objects, has also tackled Shakespeare, but took a different approach. Phillips used his versions of King Lear, The Tempest and Henry V to illuminate cultural or political issues or to tell us something we might not have thought of about the play itself (although in a strange, eccentric and sideways manner). In earlier seasons, Buntport staged Titus Andronicus and Macbeth with the primary goal of provoking laughter, and they do it again here, sending waves of giggles and belly laughs rippling through the house, punctuated by the occasional surprised snort.
But Something Is Rotten isn't just great entertainment. It also tells us something about the process of making theater. The Buntporters go about their work in the same way that a four-year-old creates a game -- focused, intense, playful, pursuing an idea until it dead-ends, then making a swift turn and dashing off down another pathway. Or just hanging on and babbling until something new springs to mind. Except that these players are highly sophisticated, and the apparent artlessness of the production masks the meticulous work that shaped the final version.
There's not a boring moment in Something Is Rotten, even though the company is unconcerned with narrative and forward momentum, at least in a conventional sense. The play mocks these elements. An actor stands on the stage and stares at us as he tries to figure out what to do next. Two of the performers rush off stage to buy ice cream. It's clear from the pace of the show the relaxed tension of the actors that Buntport has mastered its medium. These guys don't have to hit you over the head with what they're doing, get loud and jittery, try to underline the cleverness of their inventions. They're not worried about losing the audience. They take their time, and they know exactly what they're doing. On an almost empty stage, using nothing but their minds, voices, bodies and a few props, they're making theater magic right in front of your eyes.
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