REVIEW: Hamletmachine (Trap Door Theatre)

     
     

good design ≠ good machine

     
     

Hamletmachine - Trap Door Theatre - Heiner Muller

   
Trap Door Theatre presents
  
Hamletmachine
   
Written by Heiner Müller
Translated by Carl Weber 
Directed by
Max Traux
at
Trap Door Theatre, 1655 W. Cortland (map)
through Feb 12  |  tickets: $20  |  more info

Reviewed by Barry Eitel

As one of the leading figures in postmodern literature, Heiner Müller is nearly as widely influential as fellow German Bertolt Brecht. However, Müller, with ingenious methods of chopping up and pureeing language and story, never gets the same exposure on this side of the ocean as that master of alienation, Brecht. Some of this might come with time, considering that Brecht wrote about 30-50 years before Müller. American audiences may also have a hard time stomaching Müller’s intentionally entangled, muddy hairballs of non-linear narrative, which make Brecht’s plots look relatively straightforward.

Director Max Traux and Trap Door Theatre have a hard time dealing with Müller’s deliberate mess with their production of Hamletmachine, the playwright’s 1977 opus. The piece riffs on both Shakespeare and machines, slamming together Hamlet with 20th Century existentialist questions. Traux conceptualizes the 9-page play (!) as a rock opera of sorts, turning several of Müller’s phrases into musical catchphrases. Although the page length seems miniscule, it’s a very dense nine pages. Müller once staged a 7-hour production of Hamlet, featuring Hamletmachine as the play-within-a-play. At Trap Door, Traux spreads the text among three Hamlets, two Ophelias, and a Gertrude for good measure, further splintering the piece. The droning music, fierce acting, and heavy choreography impart weightiness, but it’s hard to discern much substance from Trap Door’s bloated production. We see lots of horrified expressions and hear plenty of pained soliloquies, but I was never sure exactly why anything was happening.

Müller and Traux are assuming that the audience is fairly familiar with Shakespeare’s original, arguably the most important work of literature in human history (we may have to reconsider after Spiderman: Turn Off the Dark is published….). Here, Hamlet (either Antonio Brunetti, Rich Logan, or David Steiger) mulls over his usual philosophical inquiries while also posing questions about modern-day revolution and art. Müller really shows off his genius when placing Hamlet’s fundamentally human dilemmas in a contemporary context—“Tomorrow has been cancelled” is an oft-repeated line through the piece.

The cast does a noteworthy job breathing life into Traux’s bizarre, fluorescent-lit world. Rich Logan’s limber, ponytailed version of Hamlet is the most interesting to watch, even when hunkered down in the aisles and gleefully eyeing the action occurring on-stage. Tiffany Joy Ross and Sadie Rogers present two very different characterizations of Ophelia, adding further complexity to the piece. It was obvious the actors were all very committed, but the performances lacked clarity. One can’t expect defined motivations and objectives from such an expressionist extravaganza, but choices should make sense in some way. In Trap Door’s manic production, a lot of the meaning soars over the audience’s heads.

Jonathan Guillen and Nicholas Tonozzi provide an eerie soundscape for Traux’s hellish vision, with a focus on repetition a la Philip Glass. Costume designer Nevena Todorovic creates fascinating concoctions that combine Elizabethan styles with strong doses of steampunk. In general, the design does a fantastic job of evoking a specific mood (a bleak, unhappy mood), a specificity the rest of the production yearns for.

The best moment of the play occurs when Hamlet #3, David Steiger, gives a monologue describing a populist uprising. There is no singing or choreography, just an actor addressing the audience. Steiger gives the audience something to cling onto amid the storm. Even though that moment doesn’t gel with the rest of the play stylistically, it is the most powerful.

Trap Door’s failing, noble as it may be, is that the production is overburdened conceptually. Müller’s script is already a puzzle. In production, the confusion should be unraveled somewhat, not wound tighter. Traux’s vision of the play may be brilliant, but it doesn’t read.

     
  
Rating: ★★
  
  

Composer & Sound Designer: Jonathan Guillen / Production Designer: Richard Norwood / Stage Manager: Barry Branfrod / Costume Designer: Nevena Todorovic / Graphic and Video Designer: Michal Janicki / Production Manager: Caitlin Boylan / Makeup Design: Zsófia ÖtvösMusic Collaborator: Nicholas Tonozzi

Hamletmachine - Trap Door Theatre - Heiner Muller

             
        

REVIEW: Chaste (Trap Door Theatre)

Bizarre love triangle

 

chaste2

 
Trap Door Theatre presents
 
Chaste
 
by Ken Prestininizi
directed by
Kate Hendrickson
at
Trap Door Theatre, 1655 W. Cortland (map)
through June 19th   | tickets: $20  |  more info

reviewed by Keith Ecker 

Imagine the hit cornball sitcom “Three’s Company” re-imagined for an audience of existential-minded intellectuals. I know it’s a stretch, but bear with me. Brunette bombshell Janet Wood is recast as Paul Ludwig Carl Heinrich Ree, a lesser Jewish-German philosopher of the mid-19th century. Secretly straight bachelor Jack Tripper chastenenepaul is recast as Lou Andreas-Salome, the first female psychoanalyst and a student of Sigmund Freud. And buxom blond Chrissy Snow is Friedrich Nietzsche. Keep the copious amounts of sexual innuendo and add some pretty bizarre dream sequences and you have a template for the Trap Door Theatre’s newest production, Chaste.

Chaste is the third Ken Prestininizi play for the avant-garde theatre company to produce. In contrast to some of the other works that Trap Door has done recently, such as the enigmatic Minna (our review ★★★★), Chaste is much more digestible for a general audience. Although there are elements of the absurd sprinkled about, for the most part what you see is what you get. And what you get is an extraordinarily entertaining play about three abnormally awkward and hyper-intelligent thinkers who are stuck in a house and trapped in a love triangle.

The play borrows heavily from history. It is true that all three philosophers did once live together. It is true that Ree (John Kahara) introduced the much younger Salome (Sarah Tolan Mee) to Nietzsche (Antonio Brunetti). And it is true that the three made a pact to live together as a chaste trio in an effort to intellectually understand the secrets of life.

What actually transpired between the threesome is unknown. What is known is that Salome cut ties with Nietzsche, believing him to be desperately in love with her. This was made all the more complex because Ree and Salome had been a couple for some time.

chastehandkiss Prestininzi’s script is poetic without being overwrought. He conveys the madness and the intelligence of these three individuals without ever romanticizing their pursuit of an enlightened life through chastity. In fact, each character, in his or her own way, is somewhat pitiful. They all can wax-philosophic about the role of God, gender equality and the meaning of life, but not one of them seems to be a well-rounded, stable individual. It’s like watching three freakishly smart teenagers fight for the affections of one another.

The actors all play their roles with a fiery passion. Kahara as the nebbish Ree does an excellent job of playing up Ree’s patient restraint, which makes his sudden outbursts of insanity all the more impactful.

Brunetti is a scene stealer with his Salvador Dali-like facial expressions. Even when sequestered from action on another part of the stage, you can’t but help to look his way. No doubt the role of Nietzsche must have been a fun character to assume, and it is obvious that Brunetti revels in doing it.

Mee definitely has the thinnest resume out of the bunch, but she holds her own alongside her cast mates. Although there are moments where her portrayal of Salome threatens to become a Charles Dickens Estella caricature, she juggles the complex layers of the early feminist who seemed to have a schizophrenic love-hate relationship with men.

Tiffany Joy Ross rounds out the cast as Nietzsche’s overprotective sister Elisabeth. Ross’ frigid stare and scowling face could suck the fun out of any ménage a trios. She also succeeds in balancing the character’s stoic exterior with her brother-loving heart.

chasterefuseyou

Director Kate Hendrickson has directed every play that Trap Door has produced by Prestininizi. She has a keen eye for stunning stage pictures. And thanks to a fairly bare set save for a few platforms, the characters’ positions in reference to one another speak amply of their evolving relationships.

Chaste is a clever and often funny example of dramatic historical fiction. It is also probably the closest we’ll ever get to a 19th-century season of “Real World”. But contemporary television references aside, the lunacy that love inspires within these three lunatics, as told by a talented writer through a talented cast, makes for a four-star play.

 
 
Rating: ★★★★
 
 

chastei'mnotyoursister

Creative Team: Assistant Director: Jen Ellison / Sound Designers Jason Meyer & Shane Oman / Lighting Designer Gina Patterson / Set Designer Joseph Riley / Stage Manager Gary Damico / Costume Designer Nevena Todorovic / Makeup Designer Zsófia Ötvös / Graphic Designer Michal Janicki