At the Catholic University of America’s Callan Theatre to Sept. 2
Let me start by confessing that I’ve come late to the party. A troupe called Longacre Lea Productions has already mounted three shows prior to its terrific, wryly political staging of Tom Stoppard’s linked one-acts Dogg’s Hamlet and Cahoot’s Macbeth, and, for various reasonsvacations, other commitments, sheer lazinessI’ve missed them.
Now that I’ve experienced the wittily astute work the troupe is doing at its current addressCatholic University’s out-of-the-way-but-definitely-worth-the-trek Callan TheatreI’m kicking myself for not glomming onto it sooner. Kathleen Akerley’s staging of this evening of vintage Stoppard isn’t just fun, it’s phenomenalsmartly designed, winningly performed, and so sharply observed that it operates on a half-dozen levels at once. There are treats heredifferently calibrated and wildly divergentfor Bardophiles, Stoppard fans, political junkies, serious linguists, Royal Family watchers, child-education specialists, Czech expats, human-rights activists, and theater lovers of virtually every stripe.
Also for folks who just wander in by accidenta group represented onstage by a jumpsuited fellow who arrives about five minutes into the proceedings (Michael Glenn), trying to make a delivery of some planks, slabs, and blocks that will be used in a prep school’s production of Hamlet. This deliv(ev)eryman needs a little help unloading his cargo, but his attempt to recruit some schoolboy actors, who are lolling around rather than rehearsing their parts, is complicated by the fact that the boys all speak a language called Dogg, made up of perfectly ordinary English words that have somehow floated free of their usual meanings. Though every syllable they utter is clear, the delivery guy can make neither head nor tail of the sentences they form. What’s the right reply, after all, to “Artichoke perambulate bog haddock priest”?
Still, he has a job to do, so he keeps his earsand mindopen. When, in frustration, he bellows “Cretinous pigface!” at a particularly vexing lad and the boy immediately looks relieved and holds out his wristwatch to show him the time, it’s clear that communication can take place, common language or no. We witness other small victories”sun, doc, trog” apparently means “one, two, three”and as he learns, so do we.
Though celebrated for wordplay, Stoppard isn’t just playing here. As the boys construct a Stonehenge of the slabs and blocks they’re unloading and the deliveryman builds a similarly primitive vocabulary, the playwright is devising a linguistic structure that he’ll use to dazzlingly different effect during the evening’s second playlet. He’s also setting up an abbreviated, 15-minute version of Hamlet thatonce it’s been introduced by a prim visiting dignitary (Kerri Rambow) in a speech composed entirely of vulgaritiesis downright breathtaking in its economy. (One odd dividend of all the linguistic mucking about is that after you’ve struggled to make sense of so many random words, when you finally hear the opening lines of Hamlet, their Elizabethan syntax comes as a relief rather than a burden.)
Dogg’s Hamlet is mostly a goof, and not just because the schoolboys dash through Shakespeare’s plot in record time and then reprise the play in a three-minute rock ‘n’ roll version. In both cases, Hamlet is performed as a knockabout farce, with a Claudius (Dan Via) who has a Baba Wawa-style speech impediment and a Laertes (Ashley Strand) who is so accident-prone that he practically kills himself before Hamlet (Jason Stiles) has a chance to skewer him. None of which, oddly enough, keeps individual moments in the tragedy from working as tragedy. Given that, at one point, the short-pantsed sweet prince is wielding a plastic light sabre, his desperation is surprisingly persuasive.
After intermission, Stoppard takes us to a different world altogether in Cahoot’s MacbethCzechoslovakia (the playwright’s birthplace) during the ’70s, when artistic expression is reined in by authorities far too wise about manipulating culture to be blithely labeled philistines. For them, a play about the violent toppling of a regime naturally raises questions, especially when it’s being performed secretly, in a basement, by a suspected subversive such as Cahoot. (The name is a riff on Pavel Kohout, the much-discussed but never-seen victim of repression and authorial stand-in in Czech dissident-writer-turned-president Václav Havel’s plays, which were themselves performed in basements before the collapse of his country’s Communist government.)
Cahoot (Jonathon Church) and his barefoot, black-clad acting company are performing a stylized, Eastern European Macbeth when an officious official (Via) arrives, demanding to see the production. He’s worried about the infection of the body politic with new ideas, and though his phrasing (“If you had any pride in your home, you wouldn’t take standing room only in your sitting room lying down”) might be funny, his threats clearly don’t amuse these basement thespians. Picking up their partsin a staging that’s a giddily clever homage to the movement-oriented work of Lucian Pintilie and other Eastern European directorsthe nervous actors try to submerge the political content of their interpretation, but no matter what they do, it’s there in every gesture.
Then the deliveryman pops up again, now speaking fluent Dogg, which the official doesn’t understand and hence finds threatening. Cahoot and his cohortsand we, having been sufficiently instructed by the first playdo understand Dogg, however, which allows us to appreciate just how crucial a role language can play in the subverting of authority. The official, not knowing whether he’s being mocked, quickly comes unhinged. Language is power on the stageand, by extension, on the world stage: Control it, and you’re pretty much unstoppable.
Or, perhaps that should be “unStoppardable,” at least for this particular company and these two plays-within-plays. Akerley’s staging takes full advantage of the training her actors have received with various Bard-related troupesincluding Washington Shakespeare Company, Shenandoah Shakespeare Express, and the Shakespeare Theatre’s new acting academy. I can’t think of many directors who would prescribe such casual leaps from slapstick to classical schtick, nor can I imagine many casts that could do the leaping with such flair. Kudos are also due the designers for making things stylish on a budget, and especially to fight choreographer Church for arranging tussles, collapses, and various other forms of mayhem that are at once uproarious and entirely persuasive from a few feet away.
The show is so smartly done that I’m plagued by a nagging suspicion that I must be missing some sly references to Longacre Lea’s previous productions, which just happen to include both a Macbeth and a Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. If you saw them, you may very well be a few steps ahead of me. If you didn’t, learn from my mistakes and get thee to Callan Theatre while the gettin’s good. CP