Auntie Mom

You have to have some big set of scones to rewrite William Shakespeare's longest, most famous play. So here's some advice for Dallas writer-composer-actor-director Scott Eckert, who has done just that with Lesson 2: Hamlet: Get fitted for an extra large codpiece, sirrah; you have succeeded at making the Bard a lot less boring.

Now playing at the Pocket Sandwich Theatre, Lesson 2: Hamlet is the second in Eckert's witty and audacious Shakespeare for the Modern Man series (he tackled the Scottish play first). For every theatergoer already holding a ticket to the serious (though untraditional) Hamlet opening this month at the Dallas Theater Center, Eckert's version should be a required appetizer. In less than two hours, not counting the Pocket's overlong intermissions, Eckert's play manages to hit the highlights of all five acts of Hamlet, comment on its characters and explain their incestuous dilemmas, parallel the famous bits with snappy modern dialogue and work in enough laughs to qualify Lesson 2 as a full-out comedy. Then there's a flurry of sword fighting, and everybody dies.

This is meta-Hamlet, updated and better organized but still loyal to the original. Eckert gives his audience credit not only for knowing Hamlet, its people and plot points, but for appreciating how gruesome it can be to slog through those soliloquies and murders with actors who take themselves and their roles too seriously. "Back off, Barrymore," one of Eckert's characters warns another when things take a too-dramatic turn. "This is the sandwich shop. You don't have to act that much."

Eckert's modern prince of Denmark, nicknamed Dane (played wonderfully by Tim Demsky), ticks off reasons why we are weary of Hamlet. "Shakespeare is supposed to be performed on a set by a group of professional pansies," he says. Hamlet tops the list of overdone Shakespeare plays, while others have been sorely neglected. Says Dane, "People think Troilus and Cressida are the newest models from Toyota."

Eckert uses a nifty staging gimmick with Lesson 2: Hamlet. On stage right, the traditional Hamlet (Matt Halteman), his mother, Gertrude (Dona Safran), his stepfather/uncle, Claudius (Michael Roe), and the rest of the tenants in Castle Elsinore deliver ye olde dialogue in iambic pentameter. On stage left, we get Dane, the New Queen (Angela Wilson), New King (Wes Copeland) and their crew performing a sort of simultaneous U.N. translation in contemporary English and contemporary dress. Back and forth they go with flawless timing. As the old-school prince launches into "To be or not to be, that is the question...," he's interrupted by leather-clad Dane. "Life, love it or leave it," says neo-Hamlet. "Where do you go when life just blows?...To die, to sleep, when we have shuffled off to Buffalo."

Explaining the treacherous plot that killed his father and sent his mother into the arms of his murderous uncle, Dane calls Gertrude "Auntie Mom" and tells her it's "gross when you get remarried and don't need to change your last name."

The cast of Lesson 2 really gets into it, and they're a dang sight better all around at nailing the themes of Hamlet than this summer's Shakespeare Fest. As Dane, Demsky is a daring, darling dude with attitude. Chain-smoking and rocking behind a mike like an angry comic, he only overplays it toward the end when the tragedy starts to overtake the comedy. Demsky's counterpart, Matt Halteman, is an effective traditional Hamlet, seemingly oblivious to the comedy happening on the other side of the stage.

Some characters act with both sets of characters at once. Chris Hauge as Polonius and Tim Shane as Horatio are both good as they address old and new Hamlets. Brandon Scott as Rosencrantz and Charles Moore as Guildenstern sing a goofy vaudeville tune as they make their half-a-millennium hop between the two sides. Wes Copeland plays the New King with the menace of Tony Soprano. Angela Wilson makes the New Queen into Roseanne with a throne. Both Ophelias, Christine Fincanon and Trista Wyly, are appropriately loopy. Richard-Michael Manuel gets well-deserved applause for his turn as a Jamaican-spiced grave digger in the cemetery scene.

Paced at a full-out sprint, Lesson 2 never wastes a moment. Eckert keeps actors and action moving at maximum energy, which suits the kooky atmosphere of the Pocket. But unlike this theater's usual slapdash melodrama fare, Eckert's fun new play delivers polished writing, sophisticated jokes and acting that doesn't insult the intelligence. No popcorn at this one, though. The play itself offers enough to chew on.

The great actress Julie Harris was 25 when she played 12-year-old Frankie Addams in director Fred Zinnemann's fine 1952 film adaptation of Carson McCullers' play The Member of the Wedding. The measure of Harris' talent was how believable she was as an adolescent. With her plain little face and gawky limbs, Harris was every inch a moody tweener, twitching uneasily between childhood and puberty. Her delicate but gut-wrenching performance was rewarded with an Oscar nomination.

McCullers' lovely play, based on her own novella, explores the loneliness of an isolated Southern white child and her relationship with a black housekeeper in the late 1940s. Frankie yearns for acceptance from her peers, her brother and his fiancee, anyone. She sprawls on the porch and dreams of finding the "we of me." Just beyond the screen doors of her Georgia household are rumblings of racial violence.

There are good reasons why this play isn't done much anymore, reasons Bucket Productions perhaps should have weighed a little longer before attempting to stage The Member of the Wedding at the Bath House Cultural Center. Among the difficulties are the 13 speaking roles, more than most small local theater companies can afford to cast with any depth of experienced talent. Also, the leads, the child Frankie and the one-eyed housekeeper Berenice (played by Ethel Waters in the film), are as dialogue-heavy, emotionally charged and difficult to carry off as the roles of Blanche and Stella in Streetcar.

Starting with the opening seconds of Act 1 of Bucket's Wedding, directed by Nancy Roberts, nearly everything about this production looks and sounds terribly wrong. The first distraction is the egregious set by Joe Murdock, a garishly painted cross section of a dining room and corner of porch. Then the actors start to speak. A freight train could rumble through the long, awkward pauses between when one person onstage stops talking and another finally says the next line. As Frankie, tomboyish teenager Weslea Rose Finley is utterly unconvincing as a tomboyish teenager. Her every gesture is stiff, every line delivered in an unfocused, sing-songy manner. As Berenice, Vivian Fullerlove fails to get anywhere near her character's innate dignity and quiet compassion. Fullerlove doesn't act so much as recite.

A small nod to Steve Roberts as Mr. Addams. He has a relaxed, Ned Beatty-ness about him. Guinn Powell has a nice moment in Act 1 as Berenice's boyfriend, T.T.

What happens after Act 1, I cannot say. Saving the best for last hasn't worked at weddings since the biblical one at Cana, and it's not good practice in the theater. As soon as the lights came up for the first of two intermissions, the "we of me" made their escape. The prospect of another couple of hours at this Wedding exhausted my tolerance. And, really, life is too short.

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Elaine Liner
Contact: Elaine Liner