To Split the Ears of the Groundlings

IT IS OPENING night in Manhattan for El Periférico de Objetos' production of Máquina Hamlet, and the New York Times, in a long article the previous Sunday, is predicting walkouts. "We don't know how audiences are going to react," confesses troupe member Emilio García Wehbi, who directed the production. "You can't say that 'I liked this show,' because there is nothing to like."

These words would be perplexing enough coming from any director in discussing any production, but it is even more fearsome when you consider that the script upon which this 60-odd-minute production is based, Heiner Müller's Hamletmachine, is only about 11 pages long and consists of complex--and sometimes indecipherable--postmodernist musings on the role of the intellectual in a crumbling society. (One of the most-repeated lines in the text is the nonsensical "BLABLABLA.") Furthermore, Máquina Hamlet is, for the most part, a puppet show. "Yes," says García Wehbi. "Dolls. Puppets. Whatever you want to call them."

This staging has a reputation for being grueling, because the Buenos Aires company doesn't simply manipulate the puppets. Rather, they savage them, tearing them to pieces, while a soundtrack of jarring noises plays and, in one scene, historical images of political terror flash against the wall. "The big issue is violence," says García Wehbi. "This unfinishable chain of violence that history repeats again and again throughout the world. It can be in different places, in different moments, but it is always going on."

Customary suits of solemn black: Periférico de Objetos' Hamletmachine
Customary suits of solemn black: Periférico de Objetos' Hamletmachine

García Wehbi explains that El Periférico de Objetos chose Müller's Hamletmachine back in 1995, because the text allowed them to explore an issue that the theater troupe itself was then grappling with. It was an "aesthetic crisis," according to García Wehbi: "We were uncomfortable, because in South American countries such as Argentina theater is unnecessary. There is so much to do before art.

"In some ways, this is the question Shakespeare's Hamlet asks: What does it mean to be an intellectual in Elsinore, when he sees all the political things going on around him?"

It was these same questions that Müller addressed in his short, textually dense musing on Hamlet, setting it in Eastern Europe, and having characters cry out that the ruins of the continent are at their back. The play is rarely performed in the U.S. (although the Praxis Group created an eight-hour staging of the work that opened at this year's Minnesota Fringe Festival). European productions have tended to be controversial: The New York Times pointed out that the play's West German debut provoked frightened audience members to rush the stage to free a bound actress.

El Periférico de Objetos continues this tradition of provocation with their rendition. "Just to work from the mind in a deductive way, or a Brechtian way, does not interest us," García Wehbi explains. "We want to shock the audience. Not because we are bad guys, but because we want to change the point of view of the audience. We don't think theater is entertainment. We want it to be work for our audience.

"The emotion you have when you [exit the show] is quite dark, and quite rich," García Wehbi continues. "Of course we want applause, because we are performers, but we also want to be effective. And you can really feel that when there is this incredible silence all throughout the seats."

 
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