Dave Barton's Slings & Arrows Takes on Hamlet

The real star of the Monkey Wrench Collective's Slings & Arrows isn't the wholly committed ensemble, the deconstructed concept of William Shakespeare's Hamlet, or the complimentary cheese and grapes during intermission, all of which merit praise. It's the incredible site: Casa Romantica, a 1927 Spanish Colonial Revival mansion overlooking the San Clemente Pier that has hosted many a gala over the years, but nothing quite like this production.

In fact, there's never been a production like this in OC history, a site-specific moveable feast in which the narrative of Shakespeare's definitive tragedy is simmered, reduced and diffused into 14 locales spread across the property—from butterfly gardens and verandas with the Pacific as a backdrop to tiny bathrooms. And while one can quibble over whether director (and OC Weekly art critic) Dave Barton's concept says anything revelatory about the most explored English-language text next to the King James Bible, it's hard to argue that the experience isn't unique, powerful and theatrical.

Barton doesn't stick Hamlet in a blender and hit purée. He peels away everything unnecessary for his concept and tosses it. And there's no mucking around with whether Hamlet is really insane or just faking. In this re-imagining, Hamlet is absolutely insane, wracked by visions, voices and paranoia, his personality splintering into two Shadow Hamlets. Anything that doesn't support this, whether characters or entire scenes, is junked.

What results is a more sinewy version of the tale, which unfolds how one would imagine a schizophrenic sees the world—a series of snapshots or glimpses that don't adhere to any reasonable structure or time element. Part of that is spatial. While the audience gathers together three times—the opening, end of act one and final scene—in between, they're akin to Pac-People, following a map's legend to find the next scene. In the first act, six scenes play on a 35-minute loop; in the second, five play on a 25-minute loop. So it's up to each audience member to decide a sequence. That can cause logistical problems. So many scenes playing at the same time means if one lasts a little long, you're in catch-up mode, and if you get momentarily disoriented, you run the risk of missing a scene (as this dope did in the first act, when he missed Polonius, the always-talented Rick Kopps, who also doubles as the grave digger in one of the second act's most memorable scenes, communicating from the afterlife).

Because one actor can only be in one place, Hamlet (a lithe and tormented Jeffrey Kieviet) only appears in four scenes (the beginning, end and once in both acts). But in some fashion, he dominates every scene, whether it's one of his fractured alter-egos (Brenda Kenworthy and Adam Poynter) tormenting Ophelia (Jami McCoy) or Gertrude (Jill Cary Martin), or other characters reacting to the madness that engulfs the court in a cycle of paranoia, mental breakdowns and blood lust.

Not all the scenes click as well as others. Why Laertes (Craig Johnson) pantomimes a song to his mother flew over my head. Anachronistic touches such as cell phones and lyrics from the Beatles' and Frank Sinatra's catalogs don't feel necessary. And some of the more cramped spaces make seeing and hearing everything a bit difficult—but that's also part of the experience. It's not just that audience members have to work a little to find and observe each scene, they also have to work on making their own connections, unraveling the threads of Hamlet's psychosis and figuring their own patterns. (The more intimate rooms also add a visceral dimension, as often you're only a few inches from the actors, all of whom contribute intense, committed performances.)

Does the frenetic focus on Hamlet's insanity truly reflect the complexity and ambiguity of Shakespeare's play? Absolutely not. If you're looking for a fuller understanding of his text and a full-bodied, “respectful” rendering, look elsewhere. But as Peter Brook wrote in The Quality of Mercy, “While each production is obliged to find its own shapes and forms, the written words do not belong to the past. They are sources that can create and inhabit new forms.” While it's understandable why some blue-blooded Shakespearian purist may cry foul that his greatest work has been fricasséed in such fashion, the method to this production's madness is clear. This is a Hamlet that belongs to the now, both in terms of its creation for this site, as well as forcing the audience to interact with it subjectively. It's a piece of living, breathing art—and one hell of a good time.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *