I knew something was up when they passed out the white cloaks and said, "Here, put these on." Me, I'm thinking, "Oh Jesus, is this going to be like one of Theatre on the Square's late-night plays where they spew you with facsimile bodily fluids?"
No, no, no. Welcome to hamletmachine, Heiner M¸ller's montage meditation on language, culture and history.
The play, developed in the late '70s, is comprised of quotations from various sources, from Shakespeare, of course, to Squeaky Fromme. It's as if M¸ller, in his attempt to deconstruct and explore the inner-workings of culture, threw all its writings into a blender and switched it on high. The result is a mere eight-page text, whose plasticity affords theater folks ample room for visionary imaginings. I know.
I saw a production of this play at Marian College's Peine Theatre a half dozen years ago. It was an independent production, staged by Pan Arts Theatre, whose creative constituents (including Karen Irwin, Marita Clarke, Jon Lindley and others) have since scattered. Pan Arts staged M¸lller's work as a kind of giant Mousetrap. The play, which I reviewed for this publication, featured all sorts of ingenious contraptions that went off throughout the production, not the least of which was the hamletmachine itself, that spewed M¸lller's blender of language.
In this production, directors John Green and Adria Badganani have chosen to portray a contraption of the psyche, a more internal and, I venture, feminine exegesis of the play. Not that the staging isn't ingenious in its own way. First off, you're already apprised that the audience is dressed like a bunch of druids in their white cloaks. Lilly Hall Theatre itself is covered in plastic. I mean covered - enough to drape a football field. I hope the Butler folks didn't try to buy this plastic during Orange Alert.
As we enter the stage, three actors, completely wrapped in nylon cloth, stand before lighted bowls. These bowls function as sound devices; each actor, in turn, rolls an object around a bowl's rim, creating a resonant hum. It's like a tuning fork, only it's a tuning vessel. Soon, other actors enter, all indistinguishable in their nylon cocoons. All sport handheld fluorescent lights, as well as flashlights on their heads - you know, like miners wear. They are spelunkers into history's byproducts, into cultural evolution's trajectory.
For an hour's duration, then, we watch as the players dance, march and move, speak text, repeat text. Mouths are machines that shape the hole that language pours through. Phrases are spoken, then linger, like a lyric in a Soul Coughing song.
Throughout the production, I often felt like the top of my head was coming off. You know that feeling? I believe it was Emily Dickinson who once said that she knew she was crafting a good poem when her scalp felt like it was lifting off. Well, Green, Badganani and their marvelous cast provided many such scalp-lifting moments. Maybe that's what the cloaks were for: to keep the tops of our heads from peeling off.
Next up at Butler University Theatre: W.B. Yeats' Dreaming of the Bones, April 17-19, co-directed by Melli Hoppe and Alissa Branch Stamatis. Call 940-9247 for tickets.
Jim Poyser is Executive Director of Earth Charter Indiana, a statewide organization that was one of over two dozen nonprofit partners in Greening the Statehouse. A former managing editor of NUVO, he won HEC’s Environmentalist of the Year Award in 2013.