Self-aware. Self conscious. Self induced.

Theater, Experimented

Hamletmachine is a weird, weird play. Heiner Müller wrote the script in 1977 – roughly 9 pages long. In Robert Wilson’s famous production in the 1980s, the performance lasted several hours, I understand. This one clocks in at 70 minutes. It has no story. It has monologues. The script also contains semi-hallucinatory descriptions of impossible stage pictures (cue Sarah Kane) – say, the ghosts of Lenin, Marx, and Mao involving televisions and axes under water.

I may be a little fuzzy on the details of that last bit.

To the inevitable dismay and frequent anger of my students when I used to teach, I included this script in the syllabus. Dismay because the script is incredibly difficult and opaque. Anger because when we don’t understand Art, we tend to take it personally, an attack on our intelligence by the artsy-fartsy-oh-so-smartsy Artist who think s/he’s SO much better than us. And we’re smart, dammit, so where do they get off?

My first encounter with Hamletmachine was as a sophomore in college sometime during my first month in my year abroad in Spain when my grasp on the language was not great and eight people in black leotards running around and throwing themselves in piles of each other was deeply confusing and not just a little distressing. I wanted to save my students that encounter. Read Hamletmachine here, in the safety and security of a classroom. Experience the fact that there’s some deeply weird stuff out there.

They hated it. They hated the video, when I finally tracked it down. Mission fail.

The script occasionally has lines for HAMLET and occasionally for THE ACTOR WHO PLAYS HAMLET. I ran mediocre discussions trying to get at this paradox in class and never came up with an answer that satisfied either me or my students. It was a play I never got into beyond an intellectual level and whose surface I never got past.

This was one of the reasons why I loved Trap Door’s Hamletmachine – they showed me something I couldn’t figure out, and it seems like a solid answer. A good answer. Not necessarily the right answer, but certainly a plausible one. And Müller’s dead, so like he’ll ever tell us.

Trap Door director Max Truax treats this script like an opera where everyone sings their text, and, like an opera, they often repeat lines over and over. This has the advantage of highlighting specific meanings, and that’s where I drew my understanding of their answer to who the “characters” are. What if HAMLET and THE ACTOR WHO PLAYS HAMLET are the same person? That is, Hamlet understands that he’s playing a part in a story that he can’t get out of? I’m not trying to posit a big metaphysical thing here, but a very down-to-earth conundrum. Let’s say I hate my life (for the record: I don’t). I’ve made all of these decisions and I’m stuck in a context (a neighborhood, a family, a rent) that makes it difficult or impossible to get out. I’m stuck in a paradox. My history drives me forward in a very specific direction, and suddenly I see myself as part of a bigger picture. But there’s momentum (my mom just killed my dad and is marrying my uncle! Eek!) and there aren’t many options left for me to pursue. I don’t want to be the person who’s job it is to keep going. I want to start over.

It was a rather beautiful revelation for me.

And speaking of beautiful, the singing and staging was lovely as well. Frequently, experimental and avant-garde theater uses its intellectual sophistication as a bludgeon against craft and staging. Not the good folks at Trap Door, who paid attention to music and movement. Nothing fancy, but their choices were solid and well developed.

The politics of the play – should that be your bag – are only minimally present. My takeaway of this production was much more about the individuals and less about the 1977 world that Heiner Müller was deconstructing. As one of the people filing out behind us said, “I think Müller’s spinning in his grave, but I thought it was great.” The postmodern became personal.

A handful of local reviews:

Chicago Tribune

Chicago Sun-Times

Time Out – Chicago

Chicago Theater Blog


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