Monday, May 5, 2014

Phoenix Theatre Ensemble Stages Stoppard's Dogg's Hamlet, Cahoot's Macbeth

L-R: John Lenartz, Brian A. Costello, Alexis Powell, and Kyle Nunn in DOGG'S HAMLET.  Photo by Gerry Goodstein.
Ludwig Wittgenstein was arguably the most brilliant and influential philosopher of the Twentieth Century.  In Philosophical Investigations, his posthumously published magnum opus, he up-ended the Augustinian view of language as being fully explicable in terms of signification – i.e., the traditional idea that all words, in all circumstances, may be understood as simply standing in for the objects, actions or qualities they represent.

That, of course, is the way children learn languages to begin with: they are shown five, red apples or a boy throwing a ball and are thereby taught what the words “five,” red,” “apple,” “boy,” “run,” and “ball” mean.  But is that all there is to it?

Wittgenstein never denied that such signification plays an important role in language, but he insisted that there was far more to it.  As an example, he imagined a situation in which two construction workers – A and B – shared a primitive language consisting only of the four words: “block,” “pillar,” “slab,” and “beam.”  Now if an observer, unfamiliar with the language, were to hear A shout out “Beam!” and then were to see B handing something to A, it certainly would be reasonable for him to conclude that the word “beam” merely signified whatever it was that B handed to A..  But what if it didn’t?  The word “beam,” as A used it and as B understood it, might actually have meant “bring me that object” or, if B were already aware of what A would want next, it might even simply have meant something like “Next” or “Here” or “Ready” or “OK.”

In the late 1970s, Tom Stoppard was so inspired by that passage in Philosophical Investigations and by the blacklisting of the Czechoslovakian playwright Pavel Kohout that he wrote two plays: Dogg’s Hamlet and Cahoot’s Macbeth.  Both were based on Shakespearean classics (much as was Rosencranz and Guildenstern Are Dead); both imagined the ramifications of speakers of different languages using the same words but with different meanings and/or understanding the same words in different ways; and the two plays were expressly intended to be produced together as Dogg’s Hamlet, Cahoot’s Macbeth.

Dogg’s Hamlet, Cahoot’s Macbeth was first staged on Broadway in 1979, closing after only 30 performances.  It is currently being revived in a splendid production off-off-Broadway by the Phoenix Theatre Ensemble at The Wild Project on East 3rd Street in Manhattan’s East Village.  It is a featured event of that troupe’s Tenth Anniversary Spring Rep season and it is well worth seeing.

Dogg’s Hamlet is a direct riff on Wittgenstein’s thought experiment regarding the meanings of words based upon their actual use rather than solely on their signification.  In Stoppard’s play, several high school students including Abel (Matt Stapleton), Baker (Kyle Nunn), and Charlie (Alexis Powell) are preparing a production of Shakespeare’s Hamlet in English.  The catch is that the students only speak Dogg which uses the same words as English does but with altogether different meanings (“useless,” for instance, means “good day” and “mouseholes” means “egg”) so that to them, what we understand as English is truly a foreign language.   When Easy (John Lenartz), a deliveryman who speaks English rather than Dogg, arrives with materials to build the play’s set – including bricks, cubes, slabs and planks - all hell breaks loose.

And that, of course, is because what Easy means by “brick,” “cube,” “slab,” and “plank” (which is what we and other English-speakers mean by those words) isn’t at all what Abel, Baker, Charlie and other Dogg-speakers mean by them.  To Dogg-speakers, “brick” means what “here” means to Easy; “slab” means “yes” or “okay”; “cube” means “thanks” or “thank you”; and “plank” means “ready.”  A collapsing Tower of Babel would seem inevitable – and it is.

Ultimately, Dogg’s Hamlet does include a comically abbreviated performance of Hamlet. And, as something of a bonus, Easy (and the audience) learn a little bit of Dogg to boot.

L-R: Morgan Rosse, Matt Stapleton, Antonio Edwards Suarez, Kyle Nunn, and Jason O'Connell in CAHOOT'S MACBETH.   Photo by Gerry Goodstein.
Cahoot’s Macbeth pushes the envelope much further.  Stoppard dedicated this play to the Czechoslovakian playwright Pavel Kohout who, together with others, was prevented from plying his theatrical trade in his native country by the totalitarian Communist Government of Czechoslovakia.  In response, Kahout, Pavel Landovsky, and others formed the “Living-Room Theatre” troupe which supported itself by working as street-sweepers and waitresses by day while secretly performing plays in homes at night.

One such performance (of an abridged version of Macbeth), taking place in Cahoot’s Macbeth, is interrupted by the arrival of an Inspector (Jason O’Connell) who understandably sees in the troupe’s “acting without authority” a metaphorical attack on the authority of the Communist Government.  And once again, Easy appears – only this time he’s speaking Dogg rather than English!

Stoppard’s double bill is as effective as George Orwell’s 1984 in its depiction of the transcendent importance of language in human society, especially in repressed societies.  Its play on words, its coded references, its metaphorical allusions, all of which we have come to associate with Stoppard, are here used to bring about an affecting serio-comic conclusion to a double-barrelled tour de force.

All of the members of the Phoenix Theatre Ensemble deserve recognition for jobs very well done, with most of them playing multiple roles in this difficult dual play assignment, but I was especially impressed by the performances of John Lenartz as the Falstaffian Easy, Jason O’Connell as the sinister Inspector, and Josh Tyson as the irrepressible Fox Major.  And kudos should go out to both scenic and sound designers for their creative and effective use of visual projections and musical mixes which added greatly to the show’s appeal.  

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