Hamlet ... in a Van
Writer-director Lauren Ludwig, left, and producer Monica Miklas
Photo by Bill Raden
Talk to any veteran of the Hollywood Fringe Festival long enough and eventually he or she will get around to using words like “incubator” or phrases like “vital crucible for new work” to describe the annual performing arts Saturnalia.
Never mind that an unseemly amount of the nearly 300 un-curated shows that incubate on Fringe stages appears to emerge as some rather routine and often under-produced solo artist shows that look as if they could be packed into a suitcase. But even the most cringingly conventional of such spectacles, devotees insist, are part of what makes Hollywood Fringe so excitingly and uniquely, well, the Hollywood Fringe.
For some, however, any fringe festival only becomes worthy of the name when it is more like a test tube – a wildly inventive laboratory for riveting, rule-breaking, risk-taking experimental work the exact likes of which have never before been experienced. Which happens to be a good description for Hamlet-Mobile, this year’s extreme, audience-immersive, Shakespeare play-on-wheels from creators Monica Miklas and Lauren Ludwig.
Miklas and production designer Shing Khor man the box office
Photo by Bill Raden
Produced by Miklas and written and directed by Ludwig, Hamlet-Mobile is eight, 10-minute themed riffs off of the Bard’s Danish revenge tragedy that the pair are staging in the back of an old Ford Econoline van. What makes Hamlet-Mobile truly unique is that the playlets are being performed for free, on a first-come, first-serve basis, for lucky one- and two-person audiences in a theater that that will be roaming among Fringe’s more traditional, brick-and-mortar venues over the course of the three-week festival. The van will park wherever it can find a spot – and will broadcast its location on Twitter, at @HamletMobile.
This is Miklas and Ludwig’s fourth Fringe together, albeit the first with a production outside of their home company, L.A. satirical comedy sketch troupe, Lost Moon Radio, where Miklas is executive director and Ludwig has served as artistic director.
“Lost Moon was feeling like it wanted to take a year off from the Fringe,” Ludwig explains in-between preview-weekend test drives of the show. “And this kind of stuff was really my first love coming up through Chicago theater. I had just been away from it for a while – doing site-specific crazy shit.”
“We’d been talking about doing an immersive Hamlet for a few years, actually,” Miklas adds. “We’ve had a few different ideas that we’ve been running over. And we started thinking this year about doing some sort of a walking tour, like a multi-space thing.
“Yeah,” Ludwig interjects. “Something that you can only do at the Fringe. Because it feels like at the Fringe Festival, which we love, there could just be weirder stuff happening at it all the time.”
On a recent Friday evening, the weirder stuff on which they eventually settled is parked on a side street behind the Elephant Theater complex.
Actress Heather Ann Gottlieb gets into character backstage
Photo by Bill Raden
Inside, the cargo area of the somewhat battered utility van has been transformed by production designer Shing Khor into what looks like a wood-paneled, well lived-in gypsy caravan riddled with tchotchke-crammed nooks. The set dovetails with a master narrative devised by Ludwig in which Hamlet-Mobile’s cast (J.B. Waterman, Lizzie Prestel, Heather Ann Gottlieb and Hunter Seagroves) are a cultish, itinerant “micro-theater” troupe – a modern-day equivalent to Hamlet’s traveling players.
For one of the ten-minute pieces, called “Breakup Sex,” two audience members sit with their backs to the cab bulkhead and face Waterman, who is sprawled in the rear. The doors are closed and the actor quietly looks up and delivers a monologue to his visitors about the 47 women with whom he has broken up. He is interrupted by a knock at the door, and Gottlieb enters the van, playing an impossibly young girl carrying a supermarket sack labeled “Remembrances.” The audience is quickly forgotten as the pair play the Hamlet-Ophelia duet from Act I, Scene 3 as a predatory bad boyfriend breakup scene. The wryly re-contextualized dramatic irony of the monologue and the almost embarrassingly voyeuristic intimacy proves a potent combination.
“I’m surprised how much it affects audience members to be talked to in that intimate way,” Ludwig says later. “I feel that way when I see stuff, but you don’t always know if your experience is universal.”
Engaging with and acknowledging the audience in such close quarters is also affecting for the actors.
Miklas, left, and Ludwig in Hamlet-Mobile's lighting booth
Photo by Bill Raden
“It’s blissful as a performer,” Waterman enthuses on the sidewalk after the show. “It’s like, overwhelming. To break up with someone, or to have this sort of final break with a significant other, and then have Nat King Cole come on and get to lie in your cool van and listen to that with a beer after that experience, it’s like this sublime, perfect version of the way you want your life to be.”
According to Miklas, it has been just as blissful for a producer. Apart from not having to compete with other shows for tech and rehearsal time in one of the heavily trafficked Fringe theaters, the biggest difference from producing Lost Moon shows at the Fringe is that Hamlet-Mobile is being offered free.
That choice she says, “is both very scary, because we may not make any money unless people want to tip us, but it’s also very freeing. And as a producer, it’s like, I don’t really have to worry about selling tickets, which is kind of unbelievable. I just need to give something to people."
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