The notion at the heart of Federico Fellini’s last film, Voice of the Moon (1990), is that at night, the water in the well of an Italian village is awakened by the moon and utters faint messages, revelations, wisdom to those prepared, or able, to listen. Fellini’s inspector of wells chastises a bickering crowd behind him, “If you’d all just stop talking for a moment, perhaps we might understand something.”
As in the movies, two new plays insist on speaking more through visual images than words. In fact, director Jonas Oppenheim’s whimsical adaptation of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, which he calls Hamlet Shut Up! (at Sacred Fools Theatre Company), opens with a company member delivering the legally required audience address about fire exits, which is soon interrupted by the same message simultaneously delivered by another company member in Spanish, overlapped by another in French, and then Portuguese (I think). Maybe there was a stab at Russian, or Japanese — who could tell through all the blather? Amidst the pandemonium, somebody arrived on behalf of the hearing-impaired to sign the location of the fire exits. That’s when Hamlet (Derek Mehn) entered in black, with some cloth dangling from the sleeves of his shirt (a fleeting and absurdist nod to historic verisimilitude by costume designer Wesley Crain), hissing as loudly as he could: “Shhhhhhhhhh!”
The onstage assembly dissolved into silence. Perhaps now, in the quiet, we might understand something.
Mehn’s Hamlet then mimed pouring gasoline across the stage and lighting a match. He did scream, which was not silent, or even quiet, but no words were used. Amidst the flames we now imagined cascading behind him, he gestured calmly, like a airline steward, stylishly pointing out the fire exits, and earning a well-deserved round of applause. All of this set the tone and the style for Oppenheim’s company of 10 (plus composer-piano accompanist Josh Senick) to render Shakespeare’s saga with ’nary a word spoken — a rollicking cross between a silent movie and a game of charades.
Oppenheim’s least-brave choice is his flippancy (Steven Spielberg’s shark from Jaws makes a couple pivotal appearances), which keeps the boat floating, more or less, but deprives his experiment the opportunity to learn whether or not the play’s abundance of existential quandaries can reach us without words.
Hamlet Shut Up! shouts back to Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin, to their legacy of silent comedies, of clowns overcoming overwhelming physical danger and debacles, with some pathos interspersed. Oppenheim employs this same proportion of light and dark, underscoring the light. For all the abundant charm of Hamlet Shut Up!, it skims the surface of conceptual possibilities offered by Hamlet — among the most brooding, existential dramas in world literature. In program notes, Oppenheim writes that his goal is for the play to be “enjoyable and intelligible.” That he accomplishes, but he sets his bar too low. Samuel Beckett was drawn to Keaton because he saw in the silent-film clown an embodiment of our comi-tragic plight in a postnuclear world. Oppenheim takes Hamlet and mainly envisions a parody — a nonverbal remake of what the Reduced Shakespeare Company does with the Bard’s canon.
Hamlet Shut Up! is at its best in a scene between Hamlet and his mother, Gertrude (Kimberly Atkinson, dextrously roiling, often with liquor flask discreetly in hand). With unspoken animal attraction, they tug at the play’s incestuous intestines before settling into a moment of rare sobriety and tenderness.
There’s no shortage of cleverness in the way Oppenhiem uses visual signals: When Hamlet’s friend Laertes (Matt Valle) is off to Paris, we know so because he walks off carrying a small French flag and a book with the Eiffel Tower on it — short and sweet. Ophelia (Tegan Ashton Cohan, a comedic sprite) carries a miniature tree in one hand, with a lake represented by a piece of blue cloth attached to her sleeve. To depict her own drowning, she catapults a puppet of herself from the tree into the sheet and offers the “splash” sound effect. Again, vivid theatrical wit. Yet it deliberately skims over the agony of the source material. No complaint with the comedy but some complaint with what it fails to replace.
Mehn’s lean Hamlet has the perfect, expressive face (eyes lined in black like young Chaplin) for the bewildered protagonist with nothing to say. Stephen Simon’s gum-chewing Claudius is a hoot, bedecked in white like a swaggering Elizabethan Elvis. When his hubris is punctured and exposed in the climactic, Claudius-orchestrated duel between Hamlet and Laertes, Simon recoils with twitches not unlike Pee-wee Herman. Other nice touches include a portable “Revenge-O-Meter” — a measure of Hamlet’s brain — that’s rolled in every few scenes, its arrow fluctuating between a skull and a plate of waffles.
If only Oppenhiem could see Tadashi Suzuki’s Elektra at one of the international theater festivals — with its opening chorus of male inmates in a nuthouse, all rolling around in wheelchairs, strictly choreographed, every leg in unison, every grunt (also no words) perfectly timed. It’s a wildly comedic, scatological prequel to one of the bitterest tragedies around — body language transmitting the darkest, deepest layers of the drama through comedy. Those are the kind of profound possibilities that still lie dormant in too much of Hamlet Shut Up!
A few blocks away, at Son of Semele Theater, Circle X Theatre Company presents Casey Smith’s one-man show, Violators Will Be Violated, late on weekend nights. In fact, you can see both productions on the same night, with time for dinner between presentations, as both theaters are less than a quarter of a mile from each other. I did just that, an experience that filled me with renewed hope for the vitality and purpose of L.A. theater: Both shows employed vigorous imaginations and a vivacious skepticism, and both were sold out.
Smith is insane. He enters in a plaid shirt and calf-length trousers, carrying a wooden stool. He has cropped silver hair, and as he ambles across the stage like a poet about to settle in for a night of lyrical rumination, he bares his teeth, rolls his eyes in their sockets, revealing unfettered dementia, and screeches like a macaw, a blood-curdling sound that he enjoys to no end. You can see this in the delight with which he glares at the crowd before screeching again. By the time the sketch is over, Smith is humping the stool.
Nobody with an iota of self-restraint or self-respect would put on a show like this, another with hardly a word spoken. In a sequence of 17 brief sketches, Smith portrays a female teenager stripping, presumably on some porn site. Again, the teeth, the demented eyes, the maniacal grin. Another includes a ballet, accompanied by Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker, during which Smith handles a mimed electric carving knife, with which he accidentally severs his own head. We see him desperately grasping at his neck, imagined blood cascading down his torso as he contorts in paroxysms of agony. He collapses, with his upper body hidden by a curtain, his stomach and legs splayed, as The Nutcracker plays on for about two more minutes.
This is an evening about the fine art of self-destruction — the hurled javelin of a decathlon athlete returns to gore him, a tossed discus returns to plow into his skull — culminating in the image of a man on a toilet, imprisoned by his own unstoppable bowel movement. His personal sewage fills the room. He tries flushing, and we see, through his hand movements, his relief as the crap subsides for a moment before backing up and rising ever higher, until what appears before us, in vivid tableau, is the frozen face of a man drowned in his own shit. This is Smith’s answer to Michelangelo’s David, an homage to our times, as puerile and self-absorbed as we are. I loved every minute of it.
HAMLET SHUT UP! | Conceived and directed by JONAS OPPENHEIM, from the tragedy by WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE | SACRED FOOLS THEATRE COMPANY, 660 N. Heliotrope Drive, Hollywood | Through December 17 | (310) 281-8337, sacredfools.org
VIOLATORS WILL BE VIOLATED | Created and performed by CASEY SMITH | Presented by CIRCLE X THEATRE COMPANY at SON OF SEMELE THEATER, 3301 Beverly Blvd., L.A | Through December 19 | circlextheatre.org