Hamlet

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. Tuesdays-Saturdays, 8:30 p.m.; Sun., Feb. 3, 7 p.m.; Sun., Feb. 10, 3 p.m. Starts: Jan. 30. Continues through Feb. 10, 2008