By Bill Hirschman
Elsinore Castle is the White House. Secretary of State Polonious is literally a puppet. Fortinbras, in the guise of the Red Chinese army, is outside the gates demanding America repay its huge trade deficit. Hamlet’s soliloquy “to be or not to be” examines existentialism versus nihilism.
And South Florida playwrights Jessica Farr and Paul Tei hope that for all the philosophical profundity and political comment, their world premiere of The Hamlet Dog and Pony Show on July 26 delivers the wry, irreverent and idiosyncratic serio-comedy that Mad Cat Theatre has specialized in for 12 years.
The deconstruction of Shakespeare’s tragedy is a patented Mad Cat mash-up that aims, as its news release states “to bring this tragedy of errors to life in dialogue with the dead, building a method of order for which to go on living.”
The aim is not to make Shakespeare more universal and accessible to a 21st Century audience. “The last thing the world needs is another modern version of Shakespeare,” said Tei, who is also directing. The goal is to use the familiar structure to look at deeper issues.
In fact, the authors have put some of the Bard’s lines in the mouths of different characters than Shakespeare intended. Gertrude is a much more fleshed out character while Ophelia’s role has been cut back. At least that was the plan two weeks ago. Farr has been rewriting as recently as this weekend.
One goal is to keep audience’s expectations off-balance and therefore, thinking about the parallels between the classic text and today’s milieu.
It may sound like a hodgepodge, but Tei is aware that some of Mad Cat’s work (notably the recent so my grandmother died….blah, blah, blah) has been criticized as being too loose and undisciplined. He promised that Hamlet will be a bit tighter and focused. But don’t expect conventional. The Miami company has always championed theater that obliterates the idea of safe, bland fare.
“Theater is not a place to go have your ideas reaffirmed,” Tei said. “It’s a place to be challenged. This whole thing may be fictional. It could be happening in Hamlet’s brain.”
The vision for this work resulted from the two authors immersing themselves in German culture, such the ideas of philosopher Martin Heidegger, the 1977 German play The Hamlet Machine by Heiner Müller, Bertolt Brecht and expressionism – some of it resulting from Tei’s visit to Germany a year and a half ago. The writers’ work draws parallels with Germany’s recent rise as the only stable economy in Europe and detractors’ fear that it could create a Fourth Reich. Farr and Tei have mixed in echoes of the Weimar Republic’s cabaret scene and Brechtian political commentary.
The cast features Ken Clement, Troy Davidson, Giordan Diaz, Carey Brianna Hart, Christopher A. Kent, Emilie Paap, Theo Reyna, Brian Sayre, Farr herself, with voice of James Randolph as the Ghost of Hamlet’s father. The sound is by Matt Corey, lights by Melissa Santiago Keenan, costumes by Leslye Menshouse and scenic design by Sean McClelland.
Farr is a Miami-raised triple threat – actress, writer, director — who now lives in Los Angeles. The Fordham University graduate was artistic director of the New York-based Curtail Productions, which she described on Twitter as seeking “to bring rawness to the imaginary, fire to the ordinary and grace to the volatile.”
For more than two decades, Tei has been the quintessential theater artist pursing his own vision in defiance of mainstream culture. He has worked as an actor for most of the major theater companies in the region, often cast as an amoral character such as his insane killer in Popcorn or the Hollywood shark in Speed the Plow in 2009. He’s also proven his directing chops, not just at Mad Cat but notably with Naked Stage’s 4:48 Psychosis in 2008
In recent years, he’s been living in Los Angeles to pursue a parallel career on television after turning a one-shot on Burn Notice into an intermittent role as Barry, the somewhat hapless money launderer.
But his biggest impact on South Florida theater was founding Mad Cat in the fall of 2000 as a Steppenwolf-like company with a core of playwrights, actors and designers. With a rock ’n’ roll/comic book/Miami urban sensibility, Mad Cat is usually described as “edgy” by the mainstream media in recognition of its frank subject matter, unconventional storytelling and highly stylized staging.
Although based elsewhere, Tei has never wavered from an ongoing commitment to help local theater evolve. In recent years, he has returned regularly to produce, direct and/or write such works as the aforementioned so my grandmother died, Macbeth & The Monster, Broadsword and RPM.
But as soon as the show opens, Tei is headed to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival to present the CalArts Festival production of the one-woman show he developed with Kristina Wong, Going Green the Wong Way. The show bowed at Mad Cat with Tei as director in November 2010. The cost of the transfer to Great Britain was underwritten by a successful campaign on the Kickstarter fund-raising site.
Mad Cat Theatre Company’s The Hamlet Dog and Pony Show runs through July 27-Aug. 12, with a preview July 26 at The Light Box at Goldman Warehouse, 404 NW 26th Street, Miami. Performances are 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $15 for students, $30 general admission and $40 for opening night with 7 p.m. reception. (866) 811-4111 or visit www.madcattheatre.org or https://web.ovationtix.com/trs/cal/32115