Dogg’s Hamlet, Cahoot’s MacBeth

Reviewer's rating
How can playwright Tom Stoppard play with Shakespeare? With words, with time, with a soccer ball (yes, there is one).  In two interconnected one-act plays, wonderfully performed, he shares his love, puzzlement, and delight of language.  By reflecting on its absurdity, perfection, and even danger, this play – originally performed on Broadway in 1979 – has Stoppard’s signature themes of randomness and the conflict between art and reality.
Dogg’s Hamlet opens with schoolchildren speaking “Dogg”, an alternate form of English decipherable in its inflections and delivery. Easy, the builder, blunders onto the scene and is a quick study – suddenly he’s also fluent in the playfully fluid “Dogg” and the audience learns it, too. But Easy and the schoolmaster are truly speaking two languages as a set is erected, dismantled, and rebuilt again. A venerable lady delivers a type of commencement speech of Doggishly delinquent advice: “Seek kicks, kinks, slack; nick swag, swig coke, bank kickbacks.”
Czech-born Stoppard and his family fled the Nazis and came to the UK to navigate a new language and new customs. It is a universal question when learning a new language, and examining the one you know: Why is this word this word? How was it birthed? How do words cloak meaning? If a word can be fluid, what is real?
Suddenly, like the bone in 2001 becoming a spaceship, the language instantly transforms into an English we can understand – better yet, Hamlet. It’s an abbreviated, perfectly executed, perfectly awful Hamlet, gorgeously chewed and done at breakneck speed, then distilled and sped up a second time. Only a gifted troupe of seasoned actors can pull off such an amazing feat of artistry and hilarity.
The second act, Cahoots Macbeth, opens with Macbeth played straight by the troupe, giving us the chance to hear English at its highest perfection. Performed in a living room, this is a nod to Stoppard’s friend, the Czech playwright Pavel Kohout, founder of The Living Room Theatre. In 1970s Czechoslovakia, theatre artists were forbidden to practice their art in public, turning even The Bard’s works into subversive acts of incitement, performed in Prague flats by frustrated professionals.
The play-within-the-play is interrupted by The Inspector, there to confront them with their acts against the state, who then sits to watch the troupe continue their performance. To watch the players continue on with Macbeth suddenly subdued, angry, and resentful is to absolute  magic.
Easy inexplicably interrupts the scene, as well, turning into Banquo’s Ghost upending the entire performance as the players begin performing in Dogg. Here is language as the seed of revolution: “You don’t learn it, you catch it.”
Why Hamlet, why Macbeth?  In each, language is essential to the propulsion of the play – in Hamlet, the play’s the thing, coded words that draw forward the murderer. In Macbeth, he is emboldened by the witches and their deceitful words, for “none of women born shall harm” him. And in both plays, there are themes of political dissent and subversion.
Director Cheryl Faraone oversees a masterful cast who are impossibly tight, physical, and delightful. There are big themes and endless layers to digest in Stoppard’s funny, exuberant play. If it at first seems nonsensical, don’t give up – it will make sense, or at least as much sense as our crazy world is. Cube!