No, They Won’t Eat You — Inspired Lunacy in Denmark

Hamlet (4 Clowns)userpic=yorick[Note: Although I’m posting this on Talk Like a Pirate day, this isn’t in pirate speak. Alas, the “Arrrr” and “Ayeeee” keys on my keyboard are broken.]

Clowns. Some find them scary. Some find them funny. Some just don’t understand them, or think of them solely in their “big top” circus incarnation — the white makeup, the big shoes, the squirting flowers. But real clowns — in the form of true clowning around — are much different. They have an inspired silliness — they just enjoy wild play. Want an example? Look no further than Moonie, a regular at Ren Faire. He’s just silly and funny, playing on and off people. Clowns are just funny.

Now, let’s look at Hamlet. One of William Shakespeare‘s greatest plays. A tragedy, in which everyone dies. Sad. Heavy. Somber drama. Think Lion King drama. But within the play lies…. madness. After all, Hamlet puts on an antic disposition. Right?

Combine the two … clowns and Hamlet and the result is… intriguing. That was my thinking when I received a press release about this show. I’d heard good things about the Four Clowns (FB) company, and unfortunately had to miss their fringe shows. So this press release piqued my interest, and when the opportunity arose to schedule it… I did. Building off a day when I was working at home, I scheduled a Friday evening show (opening night, in fact), and we worked our way through traffic to get to the Shakespeare Center near downtown for Four Clowns Presents Hamlet. I’m very glad we did, and that’s not just because we got to have a great dinner at The Park’s Finest beforehand.

Now, I’m decidedly not a Shakespeare expert. I studied it in high school, and saw the New York Shakespeare’s version of Two Gentlemen of Verona (in fact, it is still my favorite show). I’d also seen Moonlighting’s Atomic Shakespeare. But other than that, my exposure until recently was limited. In the last few years I’ve seen a bit more: Two Gentlemen of Verona at the Old Globe in San Diego; The Taming of the Shrew at Santa Clarita Shakespeare Festival and Theatricum Botanicum; As You Like It at Theatricum Botanicum. All of them comedies (everyone gets married). I’ve never seen the big dramas such as Hamlet or the Scottish Play.

As a result, the Four Clowns version of Hamlet was probably the first time I’ve explored Hamlet as Hamlet since 1975 and Mr. Smith’s English Class at Pali Hi. Guess what. It was the perfect introduction to the piece. From the ghost wandering through the audience before the opening to the final closing scenes, it was inspired lunacy. The story came through, but the dark and somber nature heightened through the iambic pentameter wasn’t there to clutter the understanding. In fact, by lightening the tone of the story, the clowns made the story accessible and understandable, despite the difficulties that the language of Shakespeare’s time can bring. Translation: Go see this — it makes Shakespeare accessible in a truly unique way.

Normally, at this point, I’d summarize the story of Hamlet. I’m not sure I need to do that — you may already know the story, or you may have seen The Lion King and know the basis of the story. You can always read the summary at Wikipedia, or read the actual play (it’s in the public domain). The elevator summary is that it is a story of revenge: Hamlet learns from the ghost that his father was murdered, and vows revenge on his uncle, King Claudius — who did the deed and married Hamlet’s mother, Gertrude. To do this, he pretends to be mad. Only his best friend Horatio knows the truth. Hamlet is even forced to hide the truth from his love, Ophelia, and her father Pelonius and brother Laertes. Added to this mix are two fools: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.

This, as I’ve noted before, is a classic story. It is one of Shakespeare’s most produced plays, and has been reworked into countless cover stories (including the aforementioned Lion King). Who can find fault with a classic story of revenge and madness, murder and mayhem? But not everyone likes dark heavy dramas.

The Four Clowns Company took this story and lightened it up… by not changing a single plot point. What they did was turn the knob on the lunacy to a 12 when the max was 10, and dial back the somberness and actual violence. This wasn’t to the level of caricature, although Rosencrantz and Guildenstern did seem like a pair of drunken frat boys. They just changed the sanity to silly, and let the descent into lunacy proceed apace.

You get a sense of what will be happening from the pre-show, when the ghost (Joe DeSoto (FB)) starts wandering amongst the audience, making spooky hand motions (I really have no other way to describe it), and encouraging the audience to play along. This is all silent play, but very funny and very reminiscent of how Moonie plays with his audience. DeSoto seems to excel at this silent form of play. You see it again during his actual scenes as the ghost — you just don’t know where he is going to go with anything.

After the artistic director announcements, we meet an overenthusiastic Horatio (Connor Kelly-Eiding (FB)). This overenthusiasm continued throughout the show — Kelly-Eiding seemed almost like a puppy craving the acceptance and full of manic energy. It was just a joy to watch, and I found my eye drawn to her character whenever she was one the stage. Horatio then proceeds to introduce us to all the characters, after which they leave and Hamlet and Horatio encounter the Ghost.

Hamlet (Andrew Eiden (FB)) is initially portrayed as very somber — perhaps the one sane member of this troupe. The lunacy arises when Hamlet puts on the red nose… at which point the unpredictability arises. But his intensity when he delivers Hamlet’s classic monologue from the audience is remarkable, and his lunacy and actions before that only serve to heighten understanding of the classic words.  He was just fun to watch.

The “bad guys” of this story are King Claudius (Corey Johnson (FB)) and Queen Gertrude (Charlotte Chanler (FB)). Chanler’s Gertrude kept making me think of Carol Kane, for some reason. This is a good thing: Kane is a wonderful comic actress, and that sense of comic timing and lunacy came across on Chanler’s Gertrude. Watching her face the first time she gets killed is delightful.  Similarly, Johnson’s Claudius came across more as comic than evil.

The other major family in the story is Polonius (Scotty Farris (FB)), and his two children, Ophelia (Elizabeth Godley (FB)) and Laertes (Joe DeSoto (FB)). Farris captures the befuddled old man well, with some great comic overacting at point. Godley’s Ophelia is sweet — I particularly recall the scene where Hamlet eats the flower and watching her reaction. We don’t see that much of DeSoto as Laertes, but he does do a wonderful job in the swordfighting scene.

Rounding out the cast were Rosencrantz (Dave Honigman (FB)) and Guildenstern (Tyler Bremer/FB), who will later go on to star in their own play. These two men elevated the small courtier role into gag comedy, coming off as a pair of frat brothers on the edge of drunken playfulness.  The torture scene with Hamlet and Horatio is great, and their introduction to the Queen is hilarious.

Four Clowns Presents Hamlet was adapted and directed by Turner Munch (FB). I spoke to Munch after the show, expressing my usual confusion of where the director ends and the actor begins. He indicated that this production was truly a collaborative effort with everyone contributing bits and ideas; his job was to bring the various pieces together and to make them into some sort of coherent whole. He did a great job.

On the technical side… The set and props by Alexandra Giron/FB was relatively simple: some chairs, some fabric. There were more props, but they all worked to establish the appropriate sense of place and story. Lighting Design was by Mcleod Benson/FB, and it worked well-enough. Nothing fancy, but adequately illuminating :-). The back projection scenese were also quite good. There was no credit for sound design; this was too bad, as there were some scenes where sound was used to great effect. Costumes, hair, and make-up were by Elena Flores/FB and worked well. The costumes defined their characters well (the ghost costume was particularly creative). Fight choreography was by Matt Franta (FB), and appeared quite realistic. Rounding out the technical credits were: Technical Director – Matt MacCready/FB; Production Manager – Julianna Stephanie Ojeda/FB; Graphic Designer – Zach Steel (FB); Trailer Editor – Adam Carpenter/FB; Stage Manager – Ashley Jo Navarro/FB; Producers – Jeremy Aluma (FB), Sara Waugh/FB, and David Anthony Anis (FB). Four Clows is under the artistic direction of Jeremy Aluma (FB).

Four Clowns Presents Hamlet continues at the Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles (FB) in a co-production with the Four Clowns (FB) until Saturday, October 10, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 PM. Tickets are available through the Four Clowns website. This show does not appear to be on Goldstar. It is well worth seeing; one of the funniest shows I’ve seen in a long time. We’re going to keep our eyes open for other Four Clowns productions — they’re great.

Ob. Disclaimer: I am not a trained theatre critic; I am, however, a regular theatre audience member. I’ve been attending live theatre in Los Angeles since 1972; I’ve been writing up my thoughts on theatre (and the shows I see) since 2004. I do not have theatre training (I’m a computer security specialist), but have learned a lot about theatre over my many years of attending theatre and talking to talented professionals. I pay for all my tickets unless otherwise noted. I am not compensated by anyone for doing these writeups in any way, shape, or form. I subscribe at three theatres:  REP East (FB), The Colony Theatre (FB), and Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB). Through my theatre attendance I have made friends with cast, crew, and producers, but I do strive to not let those relationships color my writing (with one exception: when writing up children’s production, I focus on the positive — one gains nothing except bad karma by raking a child over the coals).  I believe in telling you about the shows I see to help you form your opinion; it is up to you to determine the weight you give my writeups.

Upcoming Shows: This evening brings our second show of the weekend: “The Diviners” at REP East (FB). Next weekend sees us going down to La Mirada to see “First Date” at The La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts (FB). October was being held for the NoHo Fringe Festival (FB), but they haven’t put up the Fringe shows yet, so I’ve started booking weekends. The first weekend of October brings “The Baker’s Wife” at Actors Co-op (FB) in Hollywood. The second weekend of October brings “The Best of Enemies” at The Colony Theatre (FB). The third weekend of October takes us to Thousand Oaks for “Damn Yankees” at Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB). The fourth weekend of October brings “Uncle Vanya” at Antaeus Theatre Company (FB) in North Hollywood. Halloween weekend sees me at CSUN for Urinetown, and then both of us out in Simi Valley for “The Addams Family” at the Simi Cultural Arts Center (Simi Actors Rep Theatre (FB)). The following weekend sees us back in Simi for the Nottingham Festival (FB) on November 7. We then go out to Perris for “A Day Out with Thomas” at Orange Empire Railway Museum (FB) on November 11 (I can’t skip seeing my buddy Thomas and his friend Percy). The bookings for November conclude with Deathtrap at REP East (FB) on November 14; the rest of the month is currently open. December brings “Humble Boy” at The Colony Theatre (FB) the first weekend, followed by a mid-week stint as a producer, when we present The Nigerian Spam Scam Scam as the dinner entertainment at the Annual Computer Security Applications Conference (ACSAC). December also has dates held for “The Bridges of Madison County” at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB) and “If/Then” at the Pantages (FB). There are also a few other interesting productions I’m keeping my eyes open for. The first is the Fall show at The Blank Theatre (FB), “Something Truly Monstrous”, sounds wonderful — however, it runs through November 8, so squeezing it in would mean a double weekend. The show at the Kirk Douglas Theatre (FB) also sounds like an interesting exploration of clutter —  but “The Object Lesson” only runs through October 4, and I’m not sure we can squeeze it in. As always, I’m keeping my eyes open for interesting productions mentioned on sites such as Bitter-Lemons, and Musicals in LA, as well as productions I see on Goldstar, LA Stage Tix, Plays411.