Going to see an Austin Drama Club production of Shakespeare is like Alice falling down the rabbit hole. Strange creatures inhabit this illogical world and relationships change in puzzling ways, but the story and essential verse remain intact in this shortened version of Hamlet.
ADC’s venue is a house just off E. 7th Street in Austin, Texas. You’ll enter through a scruffy backyard surrounded by a chain link fence. When we arrived, tech director Jennifer Fielding was standing by the gate on backyard duty. Her question: "Have you been here before?”
She wasn't challenging us speakeasy fashion; rather, she was offering guidance. Finding one's way into the theatre space isn't easy the first time, for that small house has been converted with curtains and a miscellany of improvised, tiered seating, creating a 25-seat ad hoc theatre. Sightlines are so constrained that three closed-circuit televisions offer alternate views into the corners of the playing space. Lighting is provided by inexpensive floor lamps and wall-mounted goosenecks wrapped with aluminum foil and masked with gels in deep red and blue.
You can call it underground theatre, except that it isn't underground. Japhy and Ellen Fernandes and friends are more of a cult—one that is dedicated to dark and somewhat deranged productions of the classics, each done on half a shoestring. Their output is impressive. In 2009 they filled Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays with three-week runs of Talk Radio, Hamlet, Othello, Macbeth, Fool for Love, Henry V, The Wizard of Oz, Richard III, After the Fall, and now, again, Hamlet, their fifth presentation in three years of the melancholy Dane.
Japhy crafts and directs a six-person Hamlet, edited down for a two-hour staging that includes two ten-minute intermissions. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern disappear as they did in Laurence Olivier's 1948 version. Also gone are Fortinbras and the gravedigger, much to my disappointment. What remains is a quirky Freudian psychodrama in which Shakespeare's language shines fitfully through the darkness.
Character transformations are striking and often inexplicable. Rob Novak's Hamlet dresses in white tights and a short dark tunic, but sports a Tyrolean hat and an ice ax, as if old Europe somehow slipped in space and time. Although Christopher Harris proved himself an articulate and focused actor in ADC’s recent production of Macbeth, Harris portrays Horatio as a dimwit with a pistol while Casey Allen as Leartes (sic) looks like one of the Three Musketeers.
There are more quandaries. Kat Eason plays a juicy Ophelia in a tight bustier. The "remembrance" that she "longs to redeliver" is a Playboy magazine that she unfolds in provocative fashion to display the centerfold. The Player King phones in his performance—literally—and The Mousetrap is an eerie black-and-white pantomime broadcast on television sets. Julio Mella's Polonius is a shuffler and a mumbler, and when Hamlet skewers him through the arras, neither Hamlet nor Gertrude investigate the identity of the corpse. After Hamlet berates her, Ellen Fernandes as Gertrude responds with scornful laughter when her son sees the Ghost.
Playing Claudius, director Japhy Fernandes applies an appropriately theatrical demeanor and uses impressive tone and phrasing, although in an occasionally fluty voice. His strong personalization of the confused king carries the other actors like a big clear-channel radio transmitter dominating other signals.
The cast surprises us with the entirely unexpected and unforeshadowed means of Ophelia's demise—a plot development that suggests a rich and enigmatic under-text. There's madness in this Denmark, but Hamlet isn't the lunatic.
There's a potential treasure here, but unfortunately it is never fully revealed. If you can bear the ambiguity, you'll take away some food for thought, and perhaps you'll develop a taste for Austin's alt-Shakespeare.