by Cathy Hammer
Dogg’s Hamlet, Cahoots Macbeth, two related one-acts written by Tom Stoppard in 1979, are playing at Atlantic Stage 2 as part of Potomac Theater Project’s 33rd season. Created after more (relatively) traditional plays including Jumpers and Travesties, these short works were Stoppard’s response to the “connoisseurs of totalitarian double-think” and the new wave of suppression that had taken hold of his birth country, Czechoslovakia. It is worth investing a little time up front to re-familiarize yourself with Hamlet and Macbeth and to read the program notes in order to fully enjoy this splendid production.
Unless you once worked at Bletchley Park, you are unlikely to easily crack the code used in the beginning of Act One: Dogg’s Hamlet. The fuzzy cypher is called “dogg” after Professor Dogg, a nom de plume of poet Ed Berman who among other things ran four theater troupes under his Inter-Action company. Here, Dogg is a professor with a unique language his students have “caught” and are currently using to oversee the construction of a wall. Only the deliveryman, Easy, speaks what we would recognize as the King’s English.
The briskly paced scene is a terrific metaphor for the cloaked communication that must be employed under repressive regimes such as the one Stoppard was exposing. The frustration and edginess the dialogue invokes completes our experience, yet you won’t ever be completely lost. Although you may not figure out that “Breakfast, breakfast sun-dock-trog” is the traditional “testing, testing, one, two, three” or that “Plank, git” is the equivalent of “Ready, sir,” the body language and emphasis is enough to give meaning to each nonsense phrase.
Once the wall is completed to everyone’s satisfaction and a brief award ceremony is conducted, the action shifts to Elsinore and the Hamlet portion beings. Stoppard’s flair for playing with words, words, words — thoroughly explored in his Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead — takes center stage as the actors swing through the classic in 15 very odd minutes plus a 3 minute coda. Never has the great Dane been more farcical.
The second act, Cahoot’s Macbeth, has more obvious ties to historical events. Dedicated to Czechoslovakian playwright Pavel Kohout, this section is easier to follow especially for the uninitiated. Free artistic expression had been repressed in Czechoslovakia and writers and actors had resorted to giving very private performances in living rooms. One such production of Macbeth had been organized by Kohout. In Stoppard’s absurdist twist, as soon as Macbeth takes a dagger to King Duncan, a brash Czech inspector enters the home which has been bugged. From this point forward, the cast portrays both Shakespeare’s famous characters and the better known actors of the time. Eventually the action circles back to Act One and iambic pentameter meets dogg.
Producer/Director Cheryl Faraone is to be commended for her use of the entire theatrical space. She is blessed with a skillful company of actors who have mastered the Stoppard tongue and essential shape-shifting. (Since trying to describe who takes on each role would only lend confusion to this review, they are in alphabetical order: Matthew Ball, Olivia Christie, Denise Cormier, Tara Giordano, Christo Grabowski, Will Koch, Emily Ma, Christopher Marshall, Katie Marshall, Madeleine Russell, Peter Schmitz, Lion Selve, Lucy Van Atta, Zach Varicchione, and Connor Wright. Several of the younger members have recently graduated from or are currently attending Middlebury College.) Imaginative scenic design by Mark Evancho captures the tone and time to perfection. Costumes by Chris Romagnoli and Rebecca Lafón pointedly mix period and modern elements. Hallie Zieselman’s lighting and sound by Ellery Rhodes help extend the experience beyond the boundaries of the stage.
The delightful if occasionally befuddling performances of Dogg’s Hamlet, Cahoots Macbeth can be savored through August 3. The overall experience gives deeper meaning to the phrase “free expression.” It is playing in repertory with Havel: the Passion of Thought which consists of works by Harold Pinter and Samuel Beckett along with Vaclav Havel himself. These conscientious voices have become all too timely against the backdrop of our current political and social trends.
Dogg’s Hamlet, Cahoots Macbeth — Off-Broadway at The Atlantic Stage 2 (330 West 16 St.). Runtime 1 hr. 45 min. including intermission.
General admission is $37.50 with discounts available for seniors and students. Tickets, the performance calendar, and additional information is available at http://ptpnyc.org. Limited run ends August 3.