If there’s one contemporary playwright who could even attempt to engage with the wordplay of William Shakespeare, it’s Tom Stoppard. His plays (Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, The Coast of Utopia and Arcadia among them) have shown him to be a master wordsmith, with puns, jokes, double entendres and all around linguistic acrobatics littering his work.
The play is really two short plays paired together. The first, Dogg’s Hamlet, introduces three school children (Michael Underhill, Jen O’Connor and Chris Larson) who speak Dogg, a language that uses English words (mostly nouns and adjectives) but not their meanings. “Bicycles” is a curse word and “cutlery” means “excuse me.” They are rehearsing for a performance of Hamlet, which, to them, is a foreign language.
A deliveryman (Mac Young) enters, who speaks regular English. He can’t understand the kids; they can’t understand him. He needs assistance unloading his delivery, which leads to some very funny moments of confusion and coordination.
Then, they perform a shortened version of Hamlet for some respectable women. It’s a fast, funny version with Hamlet’s (Aimee Rose Ranger) meditations being reduced to concise summaries. Then, they do an encore––an even shorter version. It made me wonder if the men who wrote The Complete Works of Shakespeare, Abridged (written nearly a decade later) took inspiration from this play.
The second half changes in tone, with actors performing Macbeth in the woman’s (Ranger again) home. Part way through, an inspector (a wonderful Nate Gundy) interrupts and interrogates the performers. Cahoot (Becca A. Lewis) is a reference to Pavel Kohout (see the wordplay?) a Czech playwright who co-founded a movement to stop government oppression. Kohout created a performance of Macbeth for living rooms, as the government had barred many actors and writers from the theater.
Here, the actors speak regular English, and the same deliveryman enters, but now he speaks Dogg. And when the actors begin doing Macbeth in Dogg, the inspector can’t prove that they’re expressing anything for which to prosecute them.
Whistler in the Dark tends to put on plays that reward some previous knowledge of another subject: Henry Kissinger in Aunt Dan and Lemon, or history in The Europeans or mythology in Tales from Ovid. Here, an audience member’s experience would vary depending on their knowledge of Macbeth. This is not to say one would not enjoy one’s self if they didn’t know that play, but more to say that I think it’s great that a theater company is willing to go after plays that build on, engage with or expand upon subjects like these.
Theater need not have a standard formula. It can come in a myriad of forms. It can bring out as many emotions as people possess. And when so many other theater companies are going after similar things (the newest hit from a young playwright or the latest crowd-pleasing musical, etc.), it’s nice to know that there’s a risk-taking group like Whistler in the Dark around to challenge our expectations.