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Sailing With Hamlet 

Two productions contend with sea of troubles

Feeling like your life, your universe and your favorite entertainments are just too exciting and easy to understand these days? An evening with Off-Tryon Theatre Company's biggie-sized resurrection of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead may be just the medicine you need for your rampaging euphoria. Or maybe R&G's pint-sized little sibling, The Hamletmachine, could tide you over with a maintenance dose of tedium and ennui.

Last Saturday, OTTC presented the two productions in tandem, a "Hamlet-a-thon" that began in mid-afternoon and, by evening's end, had delivered a mighty cargo of humility and confusion to audience members who might have expected enlightenment or coherence. Until an encore marathon this Saturday, Hamletmachine and R&G run on alternate evenings at SouthEnd Performing Arts Center, resuming with R&G on Wednesday.

We've known about Shakespeare companies and festivals that marshal their resources by using the same actors and set designs for multiple productions. Despite those centuries-old traditions, OTTC establishes a precedent by finding a raison d'être for a refrigerator during both of its twisted homages to the Bard's doleful Dane.

The fridge fits more naturally into the world of Heiner Müller's Hamletmachine. Strewn across the stage are three video monitors, a couple of ramps leading up to a humble platform and a snow-white coffin. Hamlet wields a minicam that is hooked up to one of the monitors. Predictably, the lens is often aimed right back at the introspective prince.

But it's not always easy to determine where Müller's world ends and director Chris O'Neill's imagination takes over. Another one of the monitors replays CNN's round-the-clock coverage of the 7/7 London bombings. When a suite of huckstering ads is splayed across the stage, we hear a slogan from a bankcard based here in Charlotte and see cans of Coke emerging from the fridge.

All of the characters wear dehumanizing gray coveralls, including Hamlet, with names conveniently printed at bib level. Hard to say whether Müller thought of adding barcodes to the backs of those uniforms when he wrote Hamletmachine late in the 70s, but they do fortify the idea that the rottenness of Hamlet's Denmark had nothing on contemporary Europe or America.

There's undeniable fascination in the chemistry between the principals. Conor Marx is a genially self-absorbed Hamlet, perhaps too close to the protagonist of Godspell for Müller's brand of agitprop. Meanwhile, Alicia Sowisdral injected a wantonness into Ophelia that Cody Harding will be hard-pressed to surpass when she returns to the role on Thursday.

Around this strong core, the OTTC presentation is fairly flimsy. None of the characters onstage wearing the labels of Horatio, Gertrude or Claudius manages to add much relevance or significance to any of those names. I'm not sure whether the two women designated as Chattels even get a chance. But there's certainly enough made of the mystifying "shadow Hamlet," and Quentin Talley clearly has no clue as to what this role is about.

In short, a few of the nuts and bolts are missing that might make The Hamletmachine work. Sound design and choreography by Jill O'Neill could have been helpful in turning this production away from nebulosity toward a point. It's definitely about how theater works — or doesn't work in a dysfunctional age — but if Off-Tryon hopes to reconstitute Müller's concept, they'll need to do a better job of digesting its nourishment.

Changes imposed on Tom Stoppard's R&G are altogether more willful and radical. By transporting Stoppard's Elizabethan setting to the current day, director John Hartness boldly attempts to show us that an absurdist deconstruct of a Shakespearean tragedy can be modernized as easily as the Bard's original.

Unfortunately, this attempt doesn't succeed. As beautifully as TJ Derham evokes Rosencrantz's preternatural nonchalance — and as conscientiously as Philip DeVaul complements him with Guildenstern's obsessive philosophizing — our protagonists never seem to belong anywhere close to Hamlet's world.

Maybe it's the tee shirts. Then again, there's really no regal Shakespearean world for these two bit players to fit into. The tragedians who perform on Hamlet's behalf also double as King Claudius, Queen Gertrude, Polonius and the fair Ophelia. Further flouting Stoppard's intent, we have Laura Goodson playing Hamlet.

Ironically, this production never finds its moorings until Act 3 — when the action takes to the sea. Brooding on deck as he sails to England, Hamlet watches Mystery Science Theater 3000 on a rather homely little TV. Otherwise, this offstage episode of Hamlet, where the prince cozens the two stooges dispatched to seal his doom, plays very much the way Stoppard imagined it.

Starting in darkness and quickly gravitating toward shtick, Derham and DeVaul seem more than ever like Beckett's icons of modernity, the hapless tramps of Waiting for Godot. Iesha Hoffman, leading the tragedians out of their ignominious concealment (no, they never got paid), finally gets a firm grip on her purpose.

Fewer excursions into perverse style and more focus on essence might have boosted OTTC's Hamlet-a-thon to success. Unfortunately, it was... not to be.

Carolina Actors Studio Theatre has brought its 2004 production of Laughing Wild to Spirit Square for the City Stage fringe theater festival : with a totally new look. From the funky fabrics hovering overhead down to the Les Miz turntable, we're back in 1987 much more emphatically this time around in Kenneth Ellis's sparkling set design.Leslie Beckham brings fresh inspiration to her portrayal of the woman on leave from Creedmoor State Mental Hospital. There's more of the manic volatility you'd expect from a nutball prone to hurling abuse at cabbies — and assaulting poor schmucks who linger too long at the supermarket near the canned tuna. Yet the turned-up voltage of her anger and violence doesn't diminish the jolt of her comical moments. Au contraire.

Beckham's Act 1 monologue is one very tough act to follow. Michael Simmons returns as the victim of the tuna tantrum, the man who keeps stumbling on the rocky road to serenity. One can speculate that Simmons gets intimidated backstage as Beckham becomes increasingly triumphant, or you might conclude that he has wearied of his role.

Either way, a noticeable gap has opened up between the impact of Beckham's "Laughing Wild" monologue and the "Searching Wild" monologue that follows. Simmons still builds satisfactorily to his ultimate eruption, when his meditative exercises yield to furious existential despair. The effect of West vanquishing East is as hilarious as ever. Hey, this is New York, not Tibet.

After intermission, we get a cavalcade of silliness as the man and woman repeatedly encounter each other in their dreams after their tuna trauma. With guest shots from Sally Jesse Raphael and the Holy Infant of Prague. It's not as deep as Act 1, for sure. More like what Saturday Night Live would be if it were written for book readers instead of bar hoppers.

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