Tom Stoppard is in danger of coming down with glossolalia. In fact, this most dazzling of the theater's word jugglers is already speaking in tongues - or with his tongue so far up his cheek that the result is much the same - in the twin bill, "Dogg's Hamlet, Cahoot's Macbeth," that arrived at 22 Steps last evening.
The playlets are not so much complex as complicated. A flash of "Hamlet," a few smidgins of "Macbeth" and a great deal of tomfoolery make up this first program by the newly formed British American Repertory Company, an outfit straddling both sides of the Atlantic and, with a company divided equally between English and American talent, spiking the guns of both British Equity and our own.
A splendid idea, in principle, and having a "new" Stoppard piece to lead off with is undoubtedly attracting special attention to BARC, which has already played four weeks in Washington and will, after four weeks here, devote the same period of time to Boston and San Francisco. But both the playwright's reputation and the nature of these short plays upstage the company, which is thrust into the unusual position of being unable to demonstrate its ability with either classical or contemporary theater.
First to "Dogg's Hamlet." An expansion of a 15-minute version of "Hamlet" Stoppard composed several years back for Berman's Inter-Action, of which BARC is a component, it takes place at a boys' school in which preparations are being made for a production of "Hamlet." Perversely, only Shakespeare's words make sense. The boys and their master all converse in a special tongue in which English words have other than familiar meanings. Thus, "cube" means "thanks," "sun, dock, trog" is "one, two, three." "Haddock priest!" reads "The mike is dead!," and "Cretinous pig-faced git?" asks "Have you got the time please, sir?" And so on and on until we get the foreshortened "Hamlet," with a speeded-up one-minute encore of the play in a time-venerated vaudeville shtick.
"Cahoot's Macbeth," the longer of the two works, which are separated by a 25-minute intermission, is a more serious and more laborious business. Taking its cue from the fact that the dissident Czech playwright Pavel Kahout and actor friends barred from performing in public put on plays, including "Macbeth," in people's apartments by appointment, it introduces a police inspector who is both a theater lover and a strict follower of the party line. Watching the play, he finds both it and the circumstances in which it is being offered open to censure, and in the end tall gray columns are set across the forestage to indicate an imprisoned society.
The only thing tying these two playlets together, aside from Shakespeare, is the figure of a truck driver for a British theatrical supply house who, attempting to make deliveries in both places, Prague as well as the English boys' school (a fellow-traveler, obviously), gets enmeshed in the proceedings. Having picked up the Dogg tongue in the first play, he brings a load of wood to the Prague flat just as Birnam Wood is due to engulf Macbeth at Dunsinane.
So the plays are mere conceits with some verbal and visual fun (there's a great deal of byplay, especially with hurled objects and lettered building blocks, and a rendition of that aggressively self-centered song "My Way" in Dogg), works with which the word magician Stoppard outdoes and outsmarts both himself and his audience as he turns somersaults throughout the short evening.
The players, all 12 of whom struck me as being able and attractive, are not matched up with their roles in the program. I recognized only our own Stephen D. Newman, who plays Macbeth and other parts, and a blonde cast opposite him is surely one of the most coolly attractive Lady Macbeths on record. Berman has staged both pieces expertly in very simple setings.
It's nice to find an organization such as BARC off and running, but Stoppard's little Chinese puzzles are far from being the ideal vehicles with which to introduce the Berman troupe.
Tom Stoppard's mind is like a three-ring circus going four ways. It always works and it usually communicates. Occasionally it flies into a merry tangent of existential infinity.
Stoppard's latest play Dogg's Hamlet, Cahoot's Macbeth, a single play interrupted and a mind spasm, opened last night at the 22 Steps Theater. In many ways it is a curiosity.
This play, more of which anon, is a baptismal gift from Stoppard to his friend Ed Berman, and his British American Repertory Company.
BARC - for short - is the first company ever to have joint recognition from both British and American Equity. This in itself is a major breakthrough in the all-essential re-unification of the English-speaking theater.
The actors are partly American and partly British, and the company is intended to tour five months a year in the U.S. and five months a year in Britain. It is all part of an organization based in London and run by Berman, an American-born Briton, who centers his work on an organization called Inter-Action. This is a social organization that tries to structure the theater within a community framework.
It is intended that Inter-Action, like BARC itself, will find a role to play in American society, not only in the theater, but also in its other activities, so much appreciated in London, involving City Farms, which are attempting to give inner city children a taste of the rural life, and also sports programs.
Inter-Action is, of course, concerned with the theater, but Berman's outstretch (a word he would probably appreciate more than Stoppard) is intended to go much further.
So much for the background to the organization. But as they say: "Apart from all that, how did you enjoy the play, Mrs. Lincoln?" and the answer must be, in my case, not very much.
It is slither-thin. The two plays are inter-dependent, and are not intended to be seen separately. One idly wonders whether they should be seen together, especially in public.
The first Dogg's Hamlet is a somewhat superficial dramatic examination of Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations on language. Why do we call this that, if that could be called this? Clever but less than fascinating. It does end however with a capsule version on Hamlet that is almost as funny as it is cute.
Onward to Cahoot's Macbeth and presumably the more engaged part of the evening. Like Stoppard's TV movie Professional Foul, and his music-drama with Andre Previn, Every Good Boy Deserves a Favour, this represents Stoppard's battle for human rights.
Here he has taken the plight of the major Czech playwright, Pavel Kohout, and shown the attempts of the serious Czech drama to produce something the Czechs call Living Room Theater.
You want Macbeth in your home, with Prague's leading actors, Pavel Landovsky and Vlasta Chramostova, and they are a phone call and a suitcase away. Unable to function in the communist-bureaucrat theater, these actors will come to you to ply their craft.
On that event Stoppard has balanced his conceit. He offers us a speeded up Macbeth (rather clever) interpolated with the interventions of an Inspector, who tries to see reality as a mockery of itself. The play is not so much a play as a news story. Stoppard adds very little to the situation, but he does, as he could justifiably claim, bring it to our attention. But we expect a great deal more from Stoppard.
The acting is by and large excellent. Peter Woodthorpe is horrendously seedy as the sinisterly complacent Inspector in Macbeth, Stephan D. Newman proved most convincing as a great actor playing an abbreviated Macbeth, and John Challis, in both sections, was amusing as a non-combatant workman in the game of life.
The plays do not provide any real statement, but are content to make ultra-chic noises. A pity. The company deserves more and Stoppard, having made the commitment, should either provide more, or remove his gift.
Do you speak Dogg? "You don't learn it. You catch it," says a character in Tom Stoppard's "Dogg's Hamlet, Cahoot's Macbeth," which opened last night at 22 Steps Theater. The language and the laughter are contagious, at least during the first half of this two-part word-play, which marks the debut in New York of the British American Repertory Company.
In "Dogg's Hamlet," Mr. Stoppard, with a bow to Wittgenstein, investigates the nature of human communication. He asks, what if our words and our actions contradicted each other? Would anyone understand anyone else? A troupe of schoolboys, played by adult actors, speak in a madcap mock language called Dogg. The intricacies of the language are explained in the program and become even clearer in performance. One boy says, "Cretinous pig-faced twit," and his headmaster calmly looks at his watch and gives him, as requested, the time of day, "Trog poxy." Lewis Carroll would have been at home.
Into this looking-glass world stumbles a Cockney moving man. He is as confused as Costello playing "who's on first" with Abbott. "Afternoon, squire!," he greets the headmaster, who, insulted, grabs him by the shirt collar. One might add that the Dogg-speakers are equally confused by the moving man's Cockney slang.
The Babel bubbles happily along as the schoolboys stage their shorthand version of "Hamlet" in English, which to them is a foreign language. At first they say the lines flatly, by rote, then speed through Elsinore as if they are trying out for Indianapolis. Amusingly, they overact and underscore, italicizing every important word. Hamlet's father, in a bedsheet with eyeholes, looks like a runaway from Halloween and a lily neatly plops into the hands of a dead Ophelia.
This jack-in-the-box travesty captures and ridicules all of the highlights of "Hamlet," with some moments so contrarily juxtaposed that it seems like a two-car collision. For example, Ophelia cuts off Hamlet in the middle of "To be or not to be," and he snarls, "Get thee to a nunnery!" The mini-"Hamlet" races to a breathtaking climax. Up shoots an encore sign, the audience applauds ("Marmalade" in Dogg speech), and, without blinking, the actors rocket through an even shorter version of the play.
Ed Berman, head of BARC, has directed his actors at such a breakneck pace that the first "Hamlet" takes only 12 minutes, the second a little less than two. More "marmalade" and they might do it in one. I first saw the play at its premiere in July in London, and since then the author - in concert with his director and actors - has been polishing and trimming. Hospitably, they now cue the audience into the neo-language. The actors, half of them Americans, half of them Englishmen, have defined their stance, so that there is no mistaking the meaning behind the words. Especially enjoyable are John Challis and Stephen D. Newman as the moving man and as a considerable segment of Hamlet's supporting cast.
After an intermission comes "Cahoot's Macbeth," which is dedicated to the outspoken Czechoslovak playwright Pavel Kohout. Because of repression in his country, Mr. Kohout and his theatrical friends staged a production of "Macbeth" in their living room. In his play, Mr. Stoppard wonders what would happen if such a private production were interrupted by authorities.
The idea is intriguing, but the attempt is unfulfilled - unlike "Professional Foul," Mr. Stoppard's television play on a similar subject. In contrast to the comic "Hamlet," this abbreviated "Macbeth" is staged straight, and most of the actors - so adept in the spoof - are not up to the dramatic mark. Furthermore, Mr. Stoppard borrows too much from Shakespeare, instead of relying on his own comic invention. Irony arises largely because of the play's setting. The witches stir their cauldron in the dark. Then the lights come on and we see a shabby Prague apartment.
There are two interruptions and each enlivens the sketch. In place of the drunken porter, an inspector knocks. Like a runaway busybody from "The Real Inspector Hound," he tries to arrest the action, strewing the stage with punitive puns and mordant observations about the theater as well as dissidents, in a vintage Stoppard monologue nudging the actors to watch their language as well as their politics.
Then the moving man returns from "Dogg's Hamlet," now speaking Dogg like a native. At first this seems like an intrusion - to us as well as to the other characters - but it is meant to be the basic point of the evening. "Macbeth" is completed in Dogg language, which eludes the inspector and makes a political comment. Even in a police state, can one be imprisoned for gestures, for miming subversion - or for thinking sedition?
"Dogg's Hamlet, Cahoot's Macbeth" is filled with such marginal notes and comments on art as well as on politics. The play itself is marginal, more a double-jointed exercise than a full Stoppard spree, but with, as usual, imagination and cleverness to spare.