(HH) Hamlet House – A Play In Progress
In Lilac Co and St Johns Theater’s program for their work-in-progress, (HH) hamlet house, performed May 28th, 2009 at the Warsaw theater in Greenpoint Brooklyn, the group uses the term “zones of autonomy” to describe their most recent production. In Hakim Bey’s T.A.Z. (Temporary Autonomous Zone), “temporary autonomous zone” refers to a space in which a political structure is challenged not through a direct attack—that is, not through a direct confrontation with an actual power structure or political apparatus—but through clandestine actions and the creation of spaces that exist beyond the mediation of governmental and corporate forces. Right now, such zones are as badly needed as ever, and it is through independent theater and other community-based art formations that they may be created.
It is appropriate that Lilac Co and St Johns Theater should take-up Bey’s term through a version of Hamlet. In Shakespeare’s original play, it is the structure of the law itself that is called radically into question—both the law of the family and of the state. Through the murder of Hamlet’s father there is an initial rupture in the structure of the law, a rupture indicated by Hamlet’s declaration that “time is out of joint.” Through the usurping of the throne by Hamlet’s mother and uncle there is another rupture, and by Hamlet’s plotting of revenge against them yet another. Amidst the drama of Hamlet, Ophelia’s voice is muffled by the primary action of the play. To say Ophelia is marginalized is an understatement, given Shakespeare’s portrayal of Ophelia as both whore and venerated object.
Taking-up these widely interpreted aspects of Shakespeare’s play, Lilac Co and St Johns Theater play off of Shakespeare’s themes and subtexts reinventing the play’s drama through Ophelia’s eyes. Against the linear drama of the original Hamlet, Lilac Co and St Johns Theater’s version offers an evental structure, a dramatic structure which moves from event to event rather than scene-by-scene. These events are interruptive, continuously messing with an audience’s attention.
Fundamental to this event structure is (HH) hamlet house’s language. Written and directed by Sean Lewis, the language of the play is often inflected by “nonsense.” Much of the language is sing-songish recalling limerick and nursery rhyme, yet it also recalls modernist literary experiments such as those of Gertrude Stein, Samuel Beckett, Lewis Carol, and Antonin Artaud. By using language that is connotative rather than denotative (that suggests something rather than “saying” something), or that is said for its qualities of expression rather than for its content, Lilac Co and St Johns Theater evokes language as a temporary autonomous zone for meaning. Within such language an audience member can dwell rather than be directed what to think about a narrative progression or a character’s “inner” psychology. Such language affects feelings and ideas actively, if not immediately, in an audience. It proves that temporary autonomous zones are not merely physical spaces, but imaginal, emotional, and intellective states one passes through.
Something else striking about the play’s language is its qualities of contradiction and announcement/presentiment. In one scene we see Ophelia (played by Elisa Matula) having sex with her two Hamlets (Hamlet one and two played by Sean Lewis and Seth Powers). During the scene she moans and screams “I fucking hate you” repeatedly. Like the memorable scene in David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive (2002), in which Betty (played by Naomi Watts) rehearses a soap opera scene twice with completely different affects, Ophelia screaming “I fucking hate you” while fucking the two Hamlets evokes a similarly confusing sense of affect.
In (HH) hamlet house we are neither what we do or what we say, but the desynching of saying and doing, speech and gesture. Even though (HH) hamlet house is live, it presents the now obvious fact that what is said and what is done are virtual to each other. I am reminded of this desynching, too, when Ophelia announces that she will turn green, takes her hands from a bucket of water, and starts painting herself green with a dab of paint. The effect of this action is affecting not just because it is weird (it would be too easy to call this gesture “weird”), but because of its play between what can be imagined at the level of speech (“I will paint myself green”) and what the theater can make real (the act of painting one’s self green). When the possible becomes instantiated (where it once existed only virtually at the level of statement) we wonder and are moved.
Photo on the left by Yuki Wakamaki – the cast from the Warsaw show: Sean Lewis, Elisa Matula, Seth Powers, and John Morena
Another “reading” of (HH) hamlet house might address the play’s perversity, and how temporary autonomous zones often court perverse dynamics. Much of the play is sexually explicit, violent, and prankstering. The play’s language can be taken as “regressive” in the psychoanalytic sense of this term. Among this prankstering and regression, games open up for the audience; we start to play along. Following a particular game logic for a while, the rules of the game shift radically, suddenly. We are in a different universe, a different situation comedy or existential drama (the play seems to play between these two dramatic genres). Ghost (played by John Morena) adds to the televisual shifts of the play’s language by consistently citing language familiar to us through the media. Ghost is a kind of media avatar, or avatar of what one overhears walking around a crowded urban environment. The actors change the channel again and are back in the situation comedy of (HH) hamlet house, as if returning from a commercial break, or a news flash. There is something 70s about (HH) hamlet house’s timing, its event dynamics. Glam rock plays on a small boombox during interludes in which the two Hamlets rock-out together or fight. The actors will occasionally talk through a microphone, as if to amplify the audience’s sense of their mediation.
Meanwhile, the corpse of Hamlet remains on the floor, rotting and unmourned. Mourned only by Ophelia who equivocates between her two Hamlets. The characters kick his body bag, they trip-over it slapstick style. As an audience member I tended to forget about Hamlet’s corpse—the ostensible center of the dram—for a long time, until there was some physical interaction with it. That is, until it became a material obstacle for the performers. As if that corpse were the only thing real in the play. As if it were peeping-out from the “dream” (the play is described as “an Ophelia dream postmortem” in the program). (HH) hamlet house is set in Detroit, one of the most forsaken of all American cities currently, and ripe for allegory by this and other facts. But it is our media speak—the disjunct between doing and saying at the heart of contemporary cultural discourse—that the play is most effective in treating.