Two local theatrical companies recently staged productions of locally written adaptations of two of Shakespeare’s greatest plays. One is the witty The Weyward Sisters, inspired by Macbeth, as staged by PYGmalion Productions and the other is Ten Deaths of Hamlet, a one-actor adaptation featuring 16 characters, presented by Sackerson.
PYGMALION PRODUCTIONS: THE WEYWARD SISTERS
There’s plenty of intelligent witty material in L. L. West’s play the Weyward Sisters. First presented two years ago at the Great Salt Lake Fringe Festival, West smartly riffs on Macbeth in a style similar to Tom Stoppard’s classic absurd comedy from the 1960s that elevated Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, the minor characters in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, to pop culture status.
West’s play is realized in a new production, directed by Jeremy Chase, currently running at PYGmalion Productions in the Black Box Theatre at the Rose Wagner Center for The Performing Arts. Betsy West (the spouse of the playwright), Ali Lente and Tamara Howell respectively play the witches Leandra, Skye and Fioon, who are trying to sort out their roles in Macbeth, a new play written by The Brad (a deliberate dyslexic anagram), and whether they should revise the conclusion. The play includes a terse, hip SparkNotes-style synopsis of Macbeth in a seven-minute prologue, nicely executed by Barb Gandy and Natalie Keezer along with primitive drawings.
The prologue is a useful primer for the rest of the show, which relies quite extensively on the well-known superstitions and conventions surrounding Macbeth in the theatrical world – not saying M***eth aloud but referencing it instead as The Scottish Play, no whistling or otherwise someone on stage might be at risk for being injured, keeping a single lit bulb on for the world’s most ancient actor ghost and wishing actors well by uttering ‘break a leg.’
The play is set in some sort of storage tent that has been converted to a dressing room. Accordingly, the time of the action is “existential with a dash of the medieval,” but most certainly set in an age before computers and portable electronic devices became the essentials of daily life.
In the prologue refresher, we are reminded that ‘weyward’ meant ‘weird.’ Gandy tells Keezer,
“In old England, weird means fate, you ding-a-ling,” to which Keezer responds, “I didn’t know. Sorry. The three weird witches—who aren’t really weird but are all about fate and stuff—they greet Macbeth in a very strange way.” One of the best lines comes at the end of the prologue as Gandy intones the cliche line ‘And they lived happily ever after,” to which Keezer interrupts, “Until there was another war.”
In the main play, the cast is sharp on all accounts, as West casts the witches in accessible contemporary personae. Leandra is the quintessential professional who has no time for trivialities but actually has a much warmer interior that is glimpsed periodically. Skye is more akin to a Type A manager than a Type B personality and thus finds it difficult to be relaxed and creative. Fioon is Welsh and the most effusive character of the trio, who feels more comfortable on acting upon her impulses.
The three actors created a nicely tuned ensemble. In fact, the real limitation in the opening night performance was the director’s pacing, far too slow to give real credence to West’s witty script. Hopefully, subsequent performances have shown significant improvements in the rhythm of the dialogue and the pacing of the narrative.
There is a clever, even mischievous, tone to the lines. At one point, Fioon is outside carrying out the antidote ritual to clear away the superstition of having uttered ‘Macbeth.’ She tells Leandra, “And instead of saying it, we’re supposed to say Celtic Chap or Gaelic Guy.” Leandra recognizes that he’s a Scotsman, which Fioon confirms: “Aye, lassie. A kilt-wearin’ Scotsman. And before ye ask, I dunna know what he’s got goin’ on under it.” Delivering the money line, Leandra says, “Then how will we ever know if he’s a real Scotsman?” West has laced the script generously with many similar lines.
There are four remaining performances Nov. 16-18: Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m., and a 2 p.m. matinee on Saturday. For ticket information see here.
SACKERSON: TEN DEATHS OF HAMLET
There were only three performances scheduled in the production run of Sackerson’s Ten Deaths of Hamlet, a fantastic creative effort of Alex Ungerman, director, and Barrett Ogden, the sole actor who took on 16 characters in a 75-minute adaptation of Shakespeare’s greatest tragedy. Those who had the fortune of viewing it were treated to one of the most exciting shows of small independent theater in a year that already has seen so much outstanding work presented in Salt Lake City.
Ogden’s interpretation was like an electrifying performance poet, oozing comparisons to Allen Ginsberg, Alex Caldiero, Dylan Thomas, Robert Pinsky, Neil Hilborn, Nkosi Nkululeko and others. The collaboration of Ungerman and Ogden does a lot to clarify Hamlet, especially for those who are a little rusty with the Shakespearean classic or who have always had a little trouble in sorting out the characters and how they are dispatched in the play.
Ogden, who also is a bass guitarist and co-founder of a recording studio, concentrates on the rhythm of Shakespeare’s prose and verse and achieves an exhilarating effect. He breathes into the adaptation its life-sustaining pulse, giving the audience a very good and very clear look at the interior of Hamlet’s own perceptions and visualizations. And, this expands the performance emotionally and physically, as we see Ogden work through the scenes of death, teasing out the grief, fury, revenge, rage and jealousy that comprises the original.
Incidentally, as a result, some scenes limn so effectively the barriers between tragedy and comedy. It is as refreshing an adaptation as any could be. Even as some of us believe that we know Hamlet inside and out, Ogden surprises the audience, by uttering lines with such spontaneity that we forget just how famous those verses really are. This includes a scene where an audience member is invited onstage.
Hence, Ungerman and Ogden let Shakespeare’s words do virtually all the work, save for a table covered with miscellaneous props, a prayer in Latin, and excerpts from a few works of Mozart’s most beloved music, of which some are played at dramatically slower speeds. If there was a quibble to be raised about the production, it would be that some of the music clips should have been shortened significantly and played as more subtle underscoring. One of the most effective uses was the smallest fragment of the Turkish March from Mozart’s opera The Abduction from The Seraglio. And, one of the best pairings comes with an excerpt from Don Giovanni, another Mozart opera. This occurs after Hamlet speaks,
She married–O most wicked speed! To post
With such dexterity to incestuous sheets!
It is not, nor it cannot come to good.
Ogden rolls out specific words – such as ‘incestuous,’ which appears four times in the script – withthe ideal magnitude of visceral expression. Hamlet is an extraordinary piece of language, given that more than 600 words were added to English, as a result. Ogden relishes every line:
Or that the Everlasting had not fix’d
His canon ‘gainst self-slaughter
See what a grace was seated on this brow;
Hyperion’s curls; the front of Jove himself;
An eye like Mars, to threaten and command;
This was your husband. Look you now what follows.
Ogden’s musical instincts serve him well. Shakespeare primarily used blank verse but often the lines would have an internal iambic pentameter pattern. But, if one adheres to the conventions of the meter, the performance risks sounding wooden, emotionally aloof, impersonal. Thus, he avoids ever sounding tentative, affected or monotonous. He captures the poetic architecture so convincingly that the entire play never lapses even momentarily in voice or pacing. In Ten Deaths of Hamlet, Ungerman and Ogden celebrate with much positive effect that the word has been made flesh.
Sackerson’s next production is The Little Prince, an adaptation of the charming book classic published in 1943 and written by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. Performances begin Nov. 24 at 8 p.m. at The Art Factory in South Salt Lake.
For more information, see here.