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The Pimp of Drama 

Actors who love Hamlet too much, and the playwright who laughs at them

Wednesday, Apr 3 2002
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I think I've found the source of inspiration for Mark Jackson's new play, I Am Hamlet, and I apologize in advance if this review sounds wonkish. (All I can say is that Jackson drove me to it.) One of W.H. Auden's Shakespeare lectures opens with the following meditation on actors aspiring to play Hamlet: "Curiously, everyone tries to identify with Hamlet, even women. ... One does not [normally] say, '"This is me'; one says, '"I am more like Claudius, perhaps, than I am like Laertes,' 'or "I would rather be Benedick than Orsino.' But when a reader or spectator is inclined to say, '"This is me,' it becomes slightly suspicious. It is suspicious when all sorts of actors say, '"This is a part I would like to do,' not, '"This is a part I have a talent to do.' I would question whether anyone has succeeded in playing Hamlet without appearing ridiculous."

Mark Jackson makes fun of the long tradition of Hamlet-playing actors and Hamlet-excavating grad students who hang their careers on ever more unique and personal interpretations of the brooding Danish prince. He does it not just by lobbing jokes in a metatheatrical show -- though the play is metatheater, and he does lob jokes -- but by posing as Hamlet himself, in the afterlife, reflecting on his long history as a character for the stage.

The afterlife here looks like a prison cell. Hamlet addresses the audience from an all-black box with chalk scores on the wall. The marks could be a prisoner's record of his days in jail, but they really represent all the versions of Hamlet ever written or performed. "I have become the pimp of world drama," Hamlet says, and university students have churned out "tens of thousands of master's feces. Theses." Along with the bitter commentary, we get a running performance of the play, with Hamlet imagining himself in the stage role, narrating his own thoughts while a cartoonish production moves invisibly around him. Sometimes the play comes into focus, and other characters speak their lines, so he speaks his. In these bits Jackson has to hustle, because he's up there alone -- Jackson/Hamlet plays everyone from Claudius and Gertrude to Osric, like a Shakespearean one-man band.

"The point about Hamlet," said Auden, "is that he is an actor, and you can't act yourself. You can only be yourself." Jackson tries to solve this problem by letting Hamlet play everyone else. The result is a hilarious show with flashes of brilliance. Jackson shapes his speeches and scenes (as both writer and performer) like an expert craftsman; his movement is careful and choreographed, and he knows how to carry the audience from a meditative sample of Shakespeare into wild rants about Stanislavsky, the Yale Drama School, and theater in San Francisco. In one or two speeches he seems to veer out of control, and you think he might say anything about anyone. Watching these tantrums I realized that I haven't seen a performer on the edge of restraint (in an original script, where I had no idea what would happen) in far too long.

But the play can't help being self-conscious. It has a master's-thesis quality of poking at Hamlet for more significance than Shakespeare ever gave him. Jackson is aware of this aspect of his show -- near the end he chalks another mark on the wall -- but he can't transcend it: I Am Hamlet remains a piece of metatheater, instead of a surprising and original new play. (By metatheater, I mean a piece that comments on performance itself.) All of Jackson's scripts for his little company, Art Street Theatre, seem to comment on performance by tweaking a monumental work from the traditional canon; last year's Io: Princess of Argos! took a minor character from Prometheus Bound and placed her in a modern cabaret. Io stood by itself, though. The sweet songs, offbeat heroine, and bizarre soap opera of Zeus raping a princess (and turning her into a cow) made for a highly original show. I Am Hamlet needs an audience that knows its Hamlet.

Still, Jackson used to write metatheater that was less accessible, and much closer to the pure movement of Anne Bogart's recent experiments, Room and Bob, which the Magic Theatre produced last month. (Jackson once took classes at Bogart's SITI school, in upstate New York.) Comparing the work of student and teacher can be fruitful: Jackson's physical skills don't match those of the actors in Room or Bob -- he isn't nearly as disciplined -- but his scripts are a lot more entertaining, because he's worked so hard to put formal movement at the service of a good story. Room and Bob were plotless abstractions, impressive but not warm; I Am Hamlet is very funny movement for the masses, or at least the masses who paid attention in English lit.

"Hamlet," said Auden, "indicates what Shakespeare might have done if he had had an absolutely free hand: He might well have confined himself to dramatic monologues." Auden thought the monologues in Hamlet were masterful but unintegrated -- detachable from the play. I Am Hamlet has the opposite problem: It's one long speech that will never stand on its own.

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