Great Dane

Loquacious Yorick bends the ear of his good buddy Hamlet (Steven Epp)

Loquacious Yorick bends the ear of his good buddy Hamlet (Steven Epp)

At the end of this past Saturday's performance of Hamlet, Barbra Berlovitz--still dressed in the flowing crimson robes of Gertrude, Queen of Denmark--made a series of rather wild gestures, pointing to several people in the audience and then flinging her arms in the air in order to beckon them to join the cast. A small group of people rose and carefully climbed out of the audience, whereupon Berlovitz introduced them as members of the France-based Footsbarn Travelling Theatre, including Paddy Hayter, who had directed this production, and Fredericka Hayter, who designed the sets and masks used in the show. Then the cast retired to a nearby piano and sang an impromptu novelty number about Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, laughing as they warbled. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern do not appear in this production--indeed, Hamlet's famous "What a Piece of Work is Man" speech to the two men is delivered from offstage as though it were mad, half-inaudible ravings.

Some of the art of mounting Shakespeare exists in the editing, as the complete text of Hamlet can take an entire evening (rent Kenneth Branagh's film version for a demonstration of this experience). Jeune Lune, under the guiding hand of the Hayters, has produced a version of this play that focuses on scenes that are often minimized or cut altogether. In many productions, Claudius and Gertrude, the duplicitous king and queen of Denmark, wander into the action, say a few pithy, villainous lines, and then disappear again until the end of the play, when Hamlet takes his revenge upon them. But with Jeune Lune's Vincent Gracieux as Claudius and Berlovitz as Gertrude, the scenes between the two are given much greater weight: This production retains an often-excised monologue in which Claudius drops to his knees in a desperate prayer as Hamlet watches, knife in hand. Hamlet, here played by Steven Epp, considers killing Claudius on the spot, but decides to refrain for fear that should the interloper die while praying he will go to heaven. "No," Hamlet says. "Up, sword, and know thou a more horrid hent." It's a lovely scene, filled with menace, and Paddy Hayter has set it in a church, represented only by light falling on the stage as though through high, arched windows.

This collaboration comes at a good time: It has been a familiar season so far, with revivals of popular chestnuts such as Green Bird and The Magic Flute. Beyond noting the prevalence of these greatest-hits packages, one might argue that Jeune Lune has begun to recycle itself in a broader sense, generating little in its new productions that has not already been done in previous works. To look at the stage here, one detects the hallmarks of a Jeune Lune show: The floor is covered with sand, as in the recent rendition of The Green Bird, and the cast wears the same sort of exaggerated, decorative, stylized costumes, designed in both instances by Sonya Berlovitz. The company's choice of collaborators would not seem to guarantee a creative change. Footsbarn Travelling Theatre has much in common with the Jeune Lune. Both draw from the sort of physical and masked theater taught by French theorist and educator Jacques Lecoq, both declare themselves to be theaters of the imagination, both have extensive roots in France, and both have achieved international reputations for their inventively refashioned productions of classic plays (the Footsbarn is particularly known for its productions of Shakespeare).

But though this production looks familiar, this Hamlet has a different texture from that of most Jeune Lune plays: It is, to begin with, more somber than usual. Befitting a tragedy, the play both opens and closes in darkness, the only onstage light produced by a small bowl filled with fire. At the start, figures in masks with fixed, melancholy expressions take the stage amid the sounds of howling dogs coming from some indeterminate offstage location. The grim vision of Hamlet's dead father stalks the battlements, a gaunt figure in a crown made from antlers. Meanwhile, center stage, members of the king's guard huddle together, freezing with cold and dread. This is, from the beginning, very much a ghost story, and seeing that it will soon deteriorate into madness, suicide, and multiple murders, the mood is exactly right.

This is a more desolate Jeune Lune than fans might be used to. But for Dominique Serrand's spiteful Polonius (who pronounces Hamlet's name as though he were choking on it), there is little in this production that is willfully comical--allowing for the gravediggers and the Player King and company, which Shakespeare wrote as comedy. Jeune Lune often superimposes a certain hilarity upon a production, finding bits of comic business even in the driest of scenes, but that aesthetic is absent here. So it is that Steven Epp, who is one of the company's strongest comic performers, plays Hamlet with little of his usual trenchant, sarcastic edge. Instead, Epp's Hamlet speaks in low, measured tones, even when feigning madness. There is much bitterness in Hamlet's banter with those he holds guilty for the death of his father--after all, he presents Ophelia (played here by Sarah Agnew) with the options of going to a convent or a brothel with one magnificently ambiguous phrase. Epp restrains none of this bile, and does not seek to make it funny, and the results are often shocking, as when he confronts Gertrude and begs her not to sleep with her husband.

"Oh shame," he cries out, "where is thy blush?"--and then Epp seizes her bed, lifting it into the air and tearing into it. It's an appropriate gesture for such a bleak and physical production, where even the gravediggers fling decayed skulls at each other.