‘Hamletmachine’ piles layers on layers

Correction appended.

A man stalks the stage with a sword. A woman delivers a passionate monologue on feminism and male inadequacy. Another woman reaches down a man’s pants while enthusiastically recounting the exploits of the Baader-Meinhof Gang, a 1970s West German terrorist group.

Jose Macian’s ’08 production of Heiner Mueller’s “Hamletmachine” opened last night at Leeds Theater, where it will run through Sunday. It is a jarring and intense show, with layers of meaning and allusion grafted onto the skeleton of William Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” in 90 minutes of fractured scenes.

“Hamletmachine,” a 1977 play by the East German playwright Mueller, is this year’s Senior Director’s Showcase production – the slot at Brown’s mainstage theater reserved each academic year for a graduating senior in the Department of Theatre, Speech and Dance. Last February, Macian proposed directing “Hamletmachine,” and later that spring the department’s faculty and staff chose him for the senior slot.

“I’ve been living and breathing Heiner Mueller for the last year,” Macian said.

Last summer, Macian traveled to Berlin’s Akademie der Kunste to research Mueller’s original staging of the play and to take in rehearsals for a production of the show at the Deutsches Theater.

He also decided that the two existing English translations of the play wouldn’t work, and so last fall re-translated the script with Katrin Dettmer GS, a native German speaker and the production’s dramaturg. The result, Macian said, is “a translation that is on one hand poetic and on the other hand faithful to Heiner Mueller.”

“Hamletmachine” has no traditional plot or set roles – Macian said he had to modify the script to accommodate the cast of six (Tamara Del Rosso ‘08.5, Hollis Mickey ’10, Max Posner ’11, Charly Simpson ’08, Evan Smith ’10 and Sam Yambrovich ’11). The characters of Hamlet and Ophelia survive from Shakespeare’s story, as do allusions to other characters and the plot. But new layers of meaning and allusion were crafted by Mueller and added to by Macian, and the play tackles social collapse, gender and feminism, New Left terrorism in Europe and U.S. cultural influence.

“Heiner Mueller believed that, the more layering, the more possibilities for meaning you could have,” Macian said. The play is at least in part about “the uncertainty of transitions and how to survive that transition,” Macian said, but he was hesitant to sum it up so neatly. “I don’t want people to come and say, ‘This is a play about this,’ ” he said. “It’s a play about so many different things.”

At Wednesday’s dress rehearsal, on a set of crumbling concrete and metal pipes, the six actors moved spasmodically, microphones taped to their cheeks with electrical tape as they delivered monologues. They robotically served cupcakes to the front row of seats and echoed one another’s lines in both English and German. The soundscape – a mix including mechanical noises, stage directions in German and classical music – added to the disconcerting, decaying atmosphere, as did projections onto faux-cement blocks.

All six actors gave skilled, intense, almost frightening performances. Especially memorable was Simpson’s impassioned speech about the “limp prick” being the ultimate weapon in the battle of the sexes and a scene when Del Rosso – clad in a red jumpsuit – led most of the cast in dancing to a remix of Britney Spears’ “Oops! … I Did It Again.”

“This is an American production of a play that is quite Germanic,” Macian said. Mueller included references to U.S. and Western culture in his original script, and “we’ve reveled in that,” Macian noted.

Mueller’s script channels “Hamlet” through the decay of the Eastern Bloc, and towards the end of the show, the play itself crumbles, with actors breaking character and directly addressing the audience. A double-sided photo of Mueller and Macian is ripped apart, the script is scattered into the air and Yambrovich storms off stage, declaring, “This play is ridiculous.”

Macian said he was initially worried that the play might prove inaccessible to audiences. But, he said, the production’s openness – Friday rehearsals were open to the public – helped reassure him. People who came to see rehearsals said it was “a complete theater experience,” Macian said.

“If people can go away with the essence of ‘Hamletmachine’ and can go away connecting it to something in their own lives, then I’ve succeeded,” he said.

“Hamletmachine” is playing this weekend at Leeds Theater. There will be 8 p.m. showings tonight and Saturday, and a 2 p.m. performance on Sunday. All performances are sold out, but some house seats will be available at the door each night. Tickets are $7 for students, $17 for general admission and $12 for faculty, staff and senior citizens.

A graphic accompanying an article in last Wednesday’s Herald (U. courts big donors, Feb. 20) misstated the total cost of the renovation of J. Walter Wilson Laboratory. It is $18 million, not $24 million. The same graphic incorrectly labeled data about the Walk, for which the University is planning to raise $10 million, all of which still remains to be raised.

A photo capiton accompanying a review in Friday’s Herald (” ‘Hamletmachine’ piles layers on layers,” Feb. 22) spelled Sam Yambrovich’s ’11 name incorrectly.