Inspired by Ghosts of Hamlets Past
BYLINE: By JASON ZINOMAN
SECTION: Section 2; Column 0; Arts and Leisure Desk; Pg. 7
LENGTH: 901 words
HAMLET was playing one mean air guitar.
In one of the long pauses between scenes during a recent rehearsal at the Public Theater, Scott Shepherd, who stars as the prince in the Wooster Group’s spin on Shakespeare’s tragedy, cracked a few jokes, practiced some dance moves and rocked out to REO Speedwagon. For an actor about to perform perhaps the most difficult role in the theatrical canon, he appeared disconcertingly at ease — maybe a little bored?
But after Mr. Shepherd rubbed his eyes and let out a gaping yawn, his face lighted up when he heard that Casey Spooner, who plays Laertes, had to leave rehearsal early. Elizabeth LeCompte, the group’s charismatic leader, holding a microphone in front of a glass of wine she was drinking, didn’t look pleased, wondering aloud who could fill in. Mr. Shepherd, who had already performed the show this year at St. Ann’s Warehouse, eagerly stepped forward. ”I can do it,” he said.
An athletic, scraggly-haired performer with a hint of a Southern accent — he was born in Raleigh, N.C., and spent most of his childhood in Marietta, Ga. — Mr. Shepherd, 39, could be called a practitioner of Extreme Acting. In 1994 he starred in a two-and-a-half-hour ”Macbeth” in which he played all the roles; this year he performed a six-and-a-half-hour version of ”The Great Gatsby,” called ”Gatz,” in which he read almost the entire book, every word of which he has committed to memory. So playing Hamlet and Laertes? Could be fun.
Since its first shows in the mid-1970s the Wooster Group has been a famously tight-knit troupe of collaborative artists overseen by Ms. LeCompte. But as the lineup of actors has changed, so has the artistic center of gravity, moving at points to Spalding Gray, Willem Dafoe, Ron Vawter or Kate Valk. Over the past several years Mr. Shepherd has emerged as the new main man, a counterpoint to the dynamic presence of Ms. Valk.
”Hamlet” runs through Dec. 2 at the Public. That the Wooster Group is even doing it is a testament to the influence of Mr. Shepherd, who has always had an obsession with that play, memorizing every word after mounting and performing in a student production at Brown. The Wooster Group has traditionally avoided Shakespeare, preferring works with more contemporary language. ”I really resisted it,” Ms. LeCompte said in a recent interview. ”I didn’t think we could do it.”
But her worries were allayed after she sat in on a few late-night readings of the play at the company’s Performing Garage, organized by Mr. Shepherd, who was secretly hoping that she would take over the project. ”Maybe there was a little anxiety that I was getting too old to play the part,” Mr. Shepherd said in an interview after rehearsal.
The company began working on the play by watching film versions, including those starring Kevin Kline (”He was so jumpy,” Mr. Shepherd said), Kenneth Branagh (”Terrible”) and Ethan Hawke (”They’re making it as cool, modern and filmic as possible — and it doesn’t work”).
”The original idea was to make some kind of statement that Hamlet is the collection of all Hamlets,” Mr. Shepherd said, ”so we would somehow mix several of them together to create a Hamlet Frankenstein. But then Liz became interested in the Richard Burton production.”
It was in part a nostalgia trip. Ms. LeCompte had seen Burton’s Broadway version (directed by John Gielgud), but what really grabbed her attention was the discovery that the production had been filmed and shown in movie theaters around the country in what was something of a groundbreaking and short-lived experiment. The Wooster Group set out to reproduce this production, taking the play that had been turned into a film and reversing the process. The original production — which was in its time somewhat experimental — had a stripped-down, rehearsal-room aesthetic, with Burton, wearing casual black clothes, at the center, heatedly emoting the great speeches.
In the Wooster production a video of Burton’s version is projected on a large screen on the back wall, presenting a ghostly image that provides something of a template for the company members to mimic. But what makes this production different from, say, ”Poor Theater,” another Wooster production in which the actors reproduce an old performance, is the emphasis on honoring Shakespeare’s text.
”I had a conviction that I wanted to be very strict about never pausing in the middle of a line of poetry, only at the end,” Mr. Shepherd said. Burton’s line readings were also affected by the film’s editing, which added and deleted pauses.
”Some of the play is written in verse and some is in prose, and there should be some difference,” Mr. Shepherd said. ”What I was discovering was that when you force yourself to pause at the end of the line, as opposed to the sentence, it starts to sound the way people talk anyway. A whole different logic starts to be available.”
After a short break in the rehearsal Mr. Shepherd strode onstage as Laertes in the scene in which he discovers that Ophelia, his sister, has died. Swiveling his shoulder back in a pose of entitlement, he recited his lines with a confidence that made it seem as if though he’d been practicing the part for months. ”I love your posture,” Ms. LeCompte said after the scene, as Mr. Shepherd flashed an easy smile. ”You should tell Casey about that. Maybe he can use it.”
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