Wooster Group's Hamlet; Alex Lyras' The Common Air

Dancing through the misery: Lyras' Iraqi cabbie in New York
Nick Chakos

In his solo performance The Common Air (co-written with director Robert McCaskill), running at Hollywood's Asylum Theatre, Alex Lyras plays a series of travelers in the environs of JFK during a terrorist bomb scare that leaves most of them stranded. In a pro forma technique for solo shows set in airports, six characters in search of an airplane intersect through fleeting conversations while waiting to depart to various stations in life. Lyras plays the all-male sextet with precision, distinction and dazzling intellect. An immigrant Iraqi cabby in a tank top waxes poetic, celebrating America's cavalier "disregard of abundance" as well as his own, imaginary reality-TV show. Through all this, he wipes his armpits and blows his nose with the same kerchief. In gridlock, he dances in the street.

Nick Chakos

(Click to enlarge)

Dancing through the misery: Lyras' Iraqi cabbie in New York

Steve Gunther

(Click to enlarge)

One very wired Hamlet

Seconds later, Lyras' pristinely coifed and manicured art trader named the Dealer serves up worldly erudition, reminiscing and rationalizing how he once fled while his partner was beaten into a vegetative state during a gay-bashing incident, and how our narrator abandoned his so-called friend to a drooling fate.

The Champion is a lawyer who serves up a justification for situational ethics while championing the cause of a white rapper/DJ whom he just met, named The Spinner (we'll see him next). The Spinner is being sued for copyright infringement after using the content of an audiotape he found in a trash canister — content he remixed into a hit. Explains The Champion, "This composer threw the tapes in the trash... Where I come from, that's intent to discontinue use."

Lyras has been performing the show for years, and that time spent with it shows in the crispness of each subject's definitive idiosyncrasies, and in the absence of blurring between characters — all delicately enhanced by Ken Rich's original score and sound design.

The Common Air is richer than Danny Hoch's or Eric Bogosian's solo showcases because it cuts beneath a reliance on mere character and poeticism in reporting on life. What Lyras discovers is a philosophy of global solipsism summed up in The Champion's staccato speech: "CNN told me [it] has no idea what's real; entire airport's transfixed [into] a television set; they're making it up as they go."

Each character has some refrain about inventing his own reality, my favorite being that of The Signifier, a West Texan donning a beret (having just returned with his son Tyler from Paris), who, through a yokel's drawl chastising young "Taahler" for spending his life attached to digital interface, reveals that he holds a chair in philosophy at University of Texas, Austin. "'We're working hard ta pervide ya with infermation.' I interpret that to mean, 'We don't know what the hail's going on. Stop askin' ivry five minutes.'"

Invented reality reaches far beyond words, The Signifier adds: "The whole airport's a simulation. The checkpoints, the X-rays, the National Guawrd. We all know they don't really stop innibahdy. They're a symbol of a barrier."

Somehow, The Signifier gets this all in between blithely aggressive cell-phone calls to his ex-wife, punctuated by tag-team hang-ups, over custody of Tyler. "Look, you create whutever reality you need to, dahrlin," he tells her. "I'm over here creatin' my own. Wanna switch?"

There's no fear of digital technology further distracting Tyler — or us — from "reality," he suggests. Such distraction started eons ago with language itself, our first attempt to make it all up as we go along; words are "signifiers," or road signs, around which we create the roads.

Elizabeth LeCompte's much-ballyhooed Wooster Group production of Hamlet (now in a brief engagement at REDCAT) takes the premise of life's being a digital interface one step further — juxtaposing live actors performing Shakespeare's play against the looming backdrop of digitally remixed and re-edited black-and-white film footage of John Gielgud's 1964 Broadway production starring Richard Burton. (Liev Schreiber, Kenneth Branagh and Ethan Hawke also put in brief video appearances.) Not only do the living actors — performing on and around platforms and a long free-rolling table with detachable "throne" (set by Ruud van den Akker) — shout out instructions to technicians situated high in the audience bleachers to "skip the Gertrude part" and fast-forward; they also themselves perform a microballet of little bounces backward while walking or descending stairs, as though they too are figurines on an aging celluloid strip that occasionally slips a sprocket.

Adding yet a third layer of alternate reality, an onstage video camera captures images in tight focus of the live actors that get simultaneously broadcast onto small screens. So when Polonius (Roy Faudree) lies murdered in Gertrude's (Kate Valk) chamber, or Ophelia's (Valk again) drowned corpse awaits burial, we see their video images frozen and framed on a small screen at the bottom of the larger one that's broadcasting Richard Burton's skyward glances and Eileen Herlie's tightlipped anguish as the Broadway Gertrude of yore. (Video design by Reid Farrington with Andrew Schneider.)

The digital splendor that the Woosters have made their calling card gets further enhanced by the team of sound designers (Geoff Abbas, Joby Emmons, Matt Schloss and Omar Aubair), who manufacture a sound-around swoosh when Rosencrantz flips his flowing hair, and meticulously calibrate how the voice of Scott Shepherd's Hamlet melds into Burton's, while Shepherd simultaneously replicates each of Burton's ghostly gestures. The production's more evocative aspects derive from the fleeting images of the film's spectral actors delivering a line or two before vaporizing into stardust.

The film ride is thrilling for a few moments, until you realize that you're in for a three-hour slog through a kind of high-tech wizardry that leaves Hamlet, also, in stardust. Shepherd delivers many of the Dane's speeches with rueful clarity, but the poor guy has to yield at least half of his performance to lip-synching somebody else's, while also performing soft-shoe choreography in leather trousers and a kilt (costumes by Claudia Hill). The invitation to this party includes the unspoken request to focus on the relationship between the live performance and the recorded one being aped, adhering to the philosophy that all the world's a remix, and all the men and women digital blips.

I'm not convinced that Hamlet is the best patient for such surgery: Eugene Ionesco's Rhinoceros, and even Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, are more likely candidates, grappling as they do with the mechanistic view of humanity to which we slap on the illusion of free will.

At its core, Hamlet concerns the plight of a character wrestling with the paradoxes of being human in a world overflowing with duplicity and betrayal. Hamlet's, Ophelia's and Gertrude's agonies all stem from their broken hearts, not their severed puppet strings. Were Hamlet a marionette, he would have murdered Claudius in Scene 2, and the drama would be a perennial in one of those 10-minute play contests. LeCompte expects Hamlet to dance with an artificial heart.

On this very stage, in 2004, Stephen Dillane enacted a one-man rendition of Macbeth, which, similarly, invited us to re-examine the way we look at one of Shakespeare's plays. The normally crowded banquet scene was a revelation as performed by one profusely perspiring actor — the electricity between characters was diminished, yet Dillane's approach enhanced a focus on Shakespeare's words and the alternate worlds they conjure. As in The Common Air, Dillane's performance was a high-concept experiment with blood running through it, a hall of mirrors that captured an essence of what it means to be human, as opposed to what it means to exist merely in the ether.

THE COMMON AIR | By ALEX LYRAS and ROBERT McCASKILL | Performed by LYRAS | Soulart at the Asylum Theatre, 6320 Santa Monica Blvd., Hlywd. | Through March 8 | (323) 960-4443 or

HAMLET | Presented by THE WOOSTER GROUP | Directed by ELIZABETH LeCOMPTE | REDCAT, 631 W. Second St., dwntwn. | Through Feb. 10 | (213) 237-2800 or

A memorial service for the late actress, director, acting coach and artistic director Roberta "Bobbi" Holtzman, who passed away December 31, 2007, will be held on Sat., Feb. 9, from 5 to 7 p.m. in the Campus Theatre at California State University, Northridge, 18111 Nordhoff St. All former colleagues, friends and students are welcome. Street parking is recommended.

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