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The Bard, Boldly
By James Yeara

There but Not There
written by Claudia Bruce, Linda Mussmann and Gerald Stoddard; music by Claudia Bruce and Gerald Stoddard; directed by Linda Mussmann

Time & Space Limited Warehouse, through May 12

Hamlet (Gerald Stoddard) plays chess with himself at a raw wood table mid-centerstage, a green-shaded lamp swaying back and forth directly overhead. Shadows swing wildly around the theater in time with the lamp as Hamlet’s image is projected digitally onto the fragmented mock movie screen—three white roll-up window shades upstage center. White sheets are stretched over the walls of the stage, and a character flow chart is angled toward the audience downstage left. There are plenty of white spaces around the stage to fill with images.

The audience simultaneously watches Hamlet talk to the chess pieces live and, from a different angle, on the three-panel screen, where Hamlet’s face is fragmented by the three-inch gaps between the panels. The effect is like watching a concert live and on a huge video screen, all while on hallucinogens. Then the black-cowled ghost of Hamlet’s father (Claudia Bruce) enters, and the video screens show the scene in negatives—the blacks white, the whites black—and the ghost asks the question all sons hate: “Do you love your father?”

It’s hypnotic, and, to steal from Austin Powers, it’s hip.

There but Not There, TSL’s two-person, multiple-character, multimedia adaptation of Hamlet is the best work that I’ve seen this group do, even though the play, as director Linda Mussman tells the audience in a preshow chat, “has been put through the meat grinder.” Acts have been rearranged and soliloquies are now shared by more than one character, but the center holds: At 73 minutes, There but Not There is the most efficient and engaging version of Hamlet anyone but a purist could ask for. And any version of Hamlet that has Gertrude saying “Hamlet, don’t fuck around” has captured the essence of the play.

This production captures both the humor, horror and humanity of Shakespeare’s play and our culture’s sense memory of studying the play in school or seeing it in films. Mussmann, Bruce and Stoddard do this with a bracing pace. There but Not There has the politics, the ego angst, and the dysfunctional family dynamics of Shakespeare, but, sadly, the sex is snipped.

The music, which ranges from vaudeville to ragtime to blues to ’50s jazz to Jewel to Yoko Ono, helps to illuminate the themes from Hamlet that inspire the contemporary touches of There but Not There. The “To be or not to be” soliloquy in particular becomes a Stoddard-and-Bruce duet, with evocative, jazzy upright bass providing accompaniment. Polonius’ “To thine own self be true” speech becomes a vaudeville number worthy of Chico and Groucho, complete with silly glasses, goofy coats, false mustaches and a “chase” around the upstage window shades that distills all that’s funny in Shakespeare.

Stoddard sings Hamlet well and has a goofy, ingénue earnestness that’s useful for Hamlet, while Bruce, with her regal bearing, retains the focus through the half-dozen characters she plays. However, they don’t seem like a couple. Even when roiling on Hamlet’s raked bed upstage center during what in Shakespeare’s play is the infamous Hamlet/Gertrude Oedipal confrontation over her “nasty sty,” Stoddard and Bruce seem more interested in not mussing the sheets.

There but Not There balances Hamlet in ways that clear up the politics, the contemporary relevance, the poetry and the humor of the most complex and longest of Shakespeare’s plays. There but Not There uses enough Hamlet snippets to function as a through line, but the video, music, images and transmutation of the text are what engage and entertain here. As it is a work in progress, I hope There but Not There is altered to plumb the sty for the honey that makes Ophelia’s madness so poignant and Hamlet’s betrayal so horrifying.

La MaMa in Greenwich Village recently presented The Hamlet Project, a performance-art, hiphop version of the play, but you need not travel so far to see innovative theater. Get thee to Hudson for the most original production in the area, and the most complete and powerful work TSL has done.

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