Welcome to Sacred Fools Theater Company, est. 1997

SACRED FOOLS Theater Company
quietly presents the World Premiere of

story by WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE
adapted by JONAS OPPENHEIM

original direction by SEAN KINNEY
and JONAS OPPENHEIM

original artwork by SEAN KINNEY

additional material written by SEAN KINNEY

Shakespeare's "Hamlet"... without all those pesky words.
What this dialogue-free adaptation lacks in words, it makes up
for in slapstick, music, clowning, vaudeville and sharks.
HAMLET SHUT UP RETURNS!
In the Summer of 2010, HSU resturns to Sacred Fools for a two-week
limited engagement, followed by a week at the New York Fringe!
DETAILS...
OVATION RECOMMENDED!
"...breathless comedy... deserve[s] multiple extensions
and cult classic status." -Don Shirley, L.A. Stage Watch
"GO... packed with theatrical imagination and a robust
sense of humor." –Steven Leigh Morris, L.A. Weekly
NOVEMBER 20 - DECEMBER 19, 2009
preview Thursday, Nov. 19 @ 8pm
then runs Fridays & Saturdays @ 8pm
and Thursday, Dec. 17 @ 8pm

plus a special modified performance for deaf audiences
on Thursday, Dec. 10 @ 8pm
Tickets: $20
Call (310) 281-8337 or Buy Online Now!
CAST
Derek Mehn
Stephen Simon
Kimberly Atkinson
Tegan Ashton Cohan
Jay Bogdanowitsch
Victor Isaac
Matt Valle
Colin Willkie
Adina Valerio
Laura Napoli
Hamlet
Claudius / Yorick
Gertrude
Ophelia
Polonius
Horatio
Laertes
Barnardo
Marcellus
Francisco
Josh Senick Composer / Accompanist
UNDERSTUDIES
Jonas Oppenheim
Laura Napoli
Horatio
Ophelia
CREW
Stage Manager
Prop Designer/Wrangler
Set & Lighting Designer
Costume Designer
Sound Designer
Fight Choreographer
Video Production
Assistant Stage Manager
Producers

Associate Producers

Graphic Design
Press Photographer
Heatherlynn Gonzalez
Matt Valle
Aaron Francis
Wesley Crain
Jaime Robledo
Laura Napoli
Ben Rock
C.M. Gonzalez
Suzanne Karpinski
David Mayes
Jennifer Fenten
Stephen Simon
Sean Kinney
Diane Meyer

REVIEWS (Words, Words, Words)

L.A. STAGE WATCH

L-R: Derek Mehn & Kimberly AtkinsonIt’s beginning to look a lot like…summer?

In L.A. theater, prime time for Shakespeare is June through August, when alfresco productions are plentiful. But the current confluence of Shakespearean or Shakespeare-related productions reminds us that you don’t have to plan a picnic in order to see his work.

I saw four Bard-linked shows during the past week, including relatively big-deal productions of Equivocation at the Geffen, Richard III at A Noise Within and Love’s Labours Lost, which is the first multi-performance theatrical engagement at the new Broad Stage.

But let me shine a spotlight on the smallest and least marketed of the four: Hamlet, Shut Up at the never-more-appropriately-named Sacred Fools Theater. Jonas Oppenheim transforms the great tragedy into breathless comedy.

His biggest idea was to remove Shakespeare’s time-consuming words. No, the actors aren’t silent as they depict most of the usual Hamlet narrative. They grunt, they shriek. One of them sings a song from the sidelines. A recorded instrumental score, accompanist Josh Senick and a few spelled-out words on a screen also help the audience keep its bearings.

Yet only one line is spoken, and it consists of only three words - which were not written by Shakespeare. They’re uttered in desperation, after a frantic bout of emergency miming fails to get an urgent point across, relatively late in the play.

Hamlet Shut Up displays a vigorous physicality reminiscent of silent film comedy, plus traditional Elsinore-style costumes. But it might be misleading to emphasize the old-school influences. The play is packed with more recent cultural references. I’m not going to give away the jokes, but I will note that Polonius’ obsessive relationship with his cell phone has very sobering consequences. Those who fail to turn off their phones during plays should take heed.

This is one of the shortest Hamlets ever - less than two hours. Most of the Rosencrantz/Guildenstern scenes and the Fortinbras finale are cut - but then those characters already have their own full-length comedies (courtesy of Tom Stoppard and Lee Blessing), so we need not pity them.

Oppenheim opens with the seldom-seen funeral of the slain king and also includes some flashbacks that were strangely missing from the original.  Have you ever wondered about Hamlet’s and Ophelia’s first date? Exactly how was Yorick reduced to just a skull?

Derek Mehn’s Hamlet looks sufficiently princely and agonized to pass as the real thing, but some of the other actors convey a more caricatured edge. The rapier-sharp ensemble maintains such impeccable timing that you’d think it had rehearsed for months.

Hamlet Shut Up is up there on the theatrical laugh meter with Land of the Tigers, which also started at Sacred Fools before its current run at the Lost Studio. Both shows deserve multiple extensions and cult classic status.

-- Don Shirley
© 2009 L.A. Stage Watch

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L.A. WEEKLY (GO!) - 3 Articles

Writer-director Jonas Oppenheim's whimsical re-imagining of Shakespeare's play as a silent movie (music composed and performed by Josh Senick) comes packed with theatrical imagination and a robust sense of humor. It also opens the question of what body language can express... See Theater feature on Wednesday night.

-- Steven Leigh Morris
© 2009 L.A. Weekly

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WHEN SILENCE IS GOLDEN

The notion at the heart of Federico Fellini’s last film, Voice of the Moon (1990), is that at night, the water in the well of an Italian village is awakened by the moon and utters faint messages, revelations, wisdom to those prepared, or able, to listen. Fellini’s inspector of wells chastises a bickering crowd behind him, “If you’d all just stop talking for a moment, perhaps we might understand something.”


As in the movies, two new plays insist on speaking more through visual images than words. In fact, director Jonas Oppenheim’s whimsical adaptation of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, which he calls Hamlet Shut Up! (at Sacred Fools Theatre Company), opens with a company member delivering the legally required audience address about fire exits, which is soon interrupted by the same message simultaneously delivered by another company member in Spanish, overlapped by another in French, and then Portuguese (I think). Maybe there was a stab at Russian, or Japanese — who could tell through all the blather? Amidst the pandemonium, somebody arrived on behalf of the hearing-impaired to sign the location of the fire exits. That’s when Hamlet (Derek Mehn) entered in black, with some cloth dangling from the sleeves of his shirt (a fleeting and absurdist nod to historic verisimilitude by costume designer Wesley Crain), hissing as loudly as he could: “Shhhhhhhhhh!”

The onstage assembly dissolved into silence. Perhaps now, in the quiet, we might understand something.

Mehn’s Hamlet then mimed pouring gasoline across the stage and lighting a match. He did scream, which was not silent, or even quiet, but no words were used. Amidst the flames we now imagined cascading behind him, he gestured calmly, like a airline steward, stylishly pointing out the fire exits, and earning a well-deserved round of applause. All of this set the tone and the style for Oppenheim’s company of 10 (plus composer-piano accompanist Josh Senick) to render Shakespeare’s saga with ’nary a word spoken — a rollicking cross between a silent movie and a game of charades...

Hamlet Shut Up! shouts back to Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin, to their legacy of silent comedies, of clowns overcoming overwhelming physical danger and debacles, with some pathos interspersed. Oppenheim employs this same proportion of light and dark, underscoring the light...

Hamlet Shut Up! is at its best in a scene between Hamlet and his mother, Gertrude (Kimberly Atkinson, dextrously roiling, often with liquor flask discreetly in hand). With unspoken animal attraction, they tug at the play’s incestuous intestines before settling into a moment of rare sobriety and tenderness.

There’s no shortage of cleverness in the way Oppenhiem uses visual signals: When Hamlet’s friend Laertes (Matt Valle) is off to Paris, we know so because he walks off carrying a small French flag and a book with the Eiffel Tower on it — short and sweet. Ophelia (Tegan Ashton Cohan, a comedic sprite) carries a miniature tree in one hand, with a lake represented by a piece of blue cloth attached to her sleeve. To depict her own drowning, she catapults a puppet of herself from the tree into the sheet and offers the “splash” sound effect. Again, vivid theatrical wit...

Mehn’s lean Hamlet has the perfect, expressive face (eyes lined in black like young Chaplin) for the bewildered protagonist with nothing to say. Stephen Simon’s gum-chewing Claudius is a hoot, bedecked in white like a swaggering Elizabethan Elvis. When his hubris is punctured and exposed in the climactic, Claudius-orchestrated duel between Hamlet and Laertes, Simon recoils with twitches not unlike Pee-wee Herman. Other nice touches include a portable “Revenge-O-Meter” — a measure of Hamlet’s brain — that’s rolled in every few scenes, its arrow fluctuating between a skull and a plate of waffles...

and, from RECESSION BE DAMNED: BEST THEATER OF 2009

8. Hamlet Shut Up!  Jonas Oppenheim’s 90-minute rendition of Shakespeare’s brooding classic at Sacred Fools Theatre Company with ’nary a word spoken was presented in the style of a silent film. This was a monument to theatrical imagination, and a lark as well, like the Reduced Shakespeare Company but without even the shorthand language.

-- Steven Leigh Morris
© 2009 L.A. Weekly

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AIRTALK (KPCC)

In this excerpt from the Dec. 16, 2009 edition of AirTalk, a caller discusses Hamlet Shut Up with host Larry Mantle and theater critics Don Shirley and Steven Leigh Morris.

© 2009 KPCC
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STAGESCENE L.A.

WOW!  For everyone who’s ever said, “Wouldn’t it be great if Shakespeare didn’t have all that Elizabethan English and iambic pentameter?”, Sacred Fools has concocted the perfect solution. Hamlet Shut Up is the world famous action/ghost/lust/revenge/murder-packed tale of the Prince Of Denmark unsullied by the spoken word—and what a brilliantly conceived and executed concoction it is! Hamlet Shut Up is full of wordless hilarity and jam-packed with sight gags, with hit songs and TV/movie themes making their way into the show at opportune moments. The cast is composed of one superb actor/physical comedian after another, and the “Entire Cast” is credited for adapting director Jonas Oppenheim’s uproarious script. There’s never been a Hamlet quite like Hamlet Shut Up, and that alone makes it a must-see for Shakespeare lover—and haters—alike.

-- Steven Stanley
© 2009
StageSceneLA
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FEATURE

AMERICAN THEATRE

SUITING THE ACTION TO THE WORD
Now here's a Hamlet Yorick could love: A pacing prince, beset by a pair of bees, kills one and grabs the other mid-buzz. After studying first the live bee then the dead one, Hamlet performs what director Jonas Oppenheim cals "an extended wacky-suicide bit" with sword, noose and tailpipe. This, in case you haven't guessed already (bee and not-bee, get it?) is Oppenheim's impish take on Shakesprea's most famous soliloquy for the dialogue-free Hamlet Shut Up, running at Los Angeles's Sacred Fools Theater Company through Dec. 19.

This non-verbal Hamlet is no mere goof or spoof, Oppenheim insists. The wordless approach has even unearthed a few dramaturgical gems.

"Taking away the dialogue has helped reveal things I hadn't thought about before," says Oppenheim. For instance, his theory that Gertrude is an alcoholic: "It helps explain her rapid turnaround from one man to another, and how she deals with the guilt. Also, why else is she so quick to drink poison in the final scene?"

-- Rob Weinert-Kendt
© 2009
American Theatre
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INTERVIEWS

LAist

Jonas Oppenheim is a theatre director on a mission. He wants to tell the story of Hamlet without a single one of Shakespeare's famous words. Last year Ross Lincoln called Oppenheim production of Earth Sucks "kinda brilliant". So this time around we wanted to find out why he is screwing with Sharkespeare.

LAist: Why Hamlet without words?

Jonas Oppenheim: I'd been thinking about how to do a play that can travel anywhere in the world, without worrying about language barriers. Someone told me that Charlie Chaplin was a huge star in non-English-speaking countries. I started thinking about how to sustain full-length comic narratives without dialogue. I was going to write an original play - something along the lines of satirizing/apologizing for foul American foreign policy - but decided I didn't want my first experiment in the non-verbal medium to also have the pressure of perfecting a new story. I started thinking about stories that I could hang this concept on, and "Hamlet" came to mind pretty quickly. First I thought of the dumbshow, then about how I could establish so many of the characters with body language. It flowed pretty easily after that.

Have any theatre professors come to give your a tongue lashing?

No. Although a high school "arts club" came and we did a talk back. They sounded like they enjoyed it. I actually think Shakespeare scholars would dig this production, for a few reasons. A lot of great concepts came out of analyzing the text. My favorite examples are why Gertrude would guzzle poison at the end - all signs point to a drinking problem (recent traumatic events, royal class, she's sort of a Desperate Housewife of Denmark). Also, exactly how did Hamlet pay his way when he was picked up by those friendly pirates? Second, I think we've done a good job of taking Shakespeare's intentions and making them appealing and understandable to today's audiences. I've heard this a few times after seeing this production: "I finally understand what happens in 'Hamlet'!" Finally, we really bring out the sex-and-violence aspect of the play, which probably pleased crowds in Shakespeare's time, but is frequently frowned upon by theatergoers who like the Bard pristine.

What was the rehearsal process for creating the scenes?

First, I read the play and outlined the story beats. Then I started getting rid of story lines I thought might be hard to capture non-verbally, or simply extraneous. I'm sure Will wouldn't mind. Then I went scene by scene and riffed on comedic routines that could accomplish whatever needed to happen in each scene - I wanted to preserve the story of "Hamlet," not change the meaning or essence of the characters. So then I had an outline for each of the scenes. That was what I had when I pitched the play to Sacred Fools. It was about 35 pages long. They were really into the idea but, among other things, concerned that the show wouldn't be long enough. I promised them it would be a full evening. At one point in rehearsals the running time was two hours, now it's a brisk ninety minutes.

Then rehearsals began. The outline was a jumping-off point. The cast and I would tackle each scene, improvising bits, working out character traits, miming environment work, sometimes using my outline, sometimes not. The cast was very involved in figuring out how each scene would go. Each cast member made contributions to the action that you will see on stage. It was a way more collaborative methodology than I've used on my work before, and it is really, really satisfying. Anyway, at the end of each day I'd film what we'd come up with, then go home and write out the beats. After our first round of blocking we had a totally new outline, and then as we refined, the outline changed again. The one I have now is what we had on opening night.

The production features slapstick, vaudeville, music, and clowning. How did you incorporate each element into the show?

A lot of it had to do with the skills and capabilities of the cast. Some had specific experience with useful techniques. For instance, Tegan aka Ophelia devised a beautiful suicide-by-drowning puppet show, and Stephen aka Claudius and Yorick was already a master at cane-and-hat work, so sometimes we would build around that. All the performers are really funny and game so there wasn't a lot of hesitation about trying different things. As for the music, the brilliant Josh Senick and I had a few discussions about themes and references, and over the course of the rehearsal period, he came up with themes for each of the characters and various scenes, and a whole lot of awesome references, and I would occasionally ask him to put something in or change the tone of something. Josh was our secret weapon.

How long have you been living in LA?

I grew up in Santa Monica, lived in NYC for ten years, came back five years ago. So 23, total.

What are some of your favorite places to see live theatre here?

I've seen a lot of Sacred Fools stuff and really dug it, which is why I wanted to work with them. I perform improv at IO West and I think much of the work there is theater on par with anything else in town. Otherwise I'm less about places than I am about certain companies - Troubadour Theater Co., Grand Guignolers, Burglars of Hamm, The Virginia Avenue Project.

Where would we find you on a day off?

Does not compute. I've been in production for three months, but I think I understand the jist of your question. I have a cool girlfriend, photographer Diane Meyer. She is doing the show "Without A Car in the World" show tonight at 18th St. Art Center in Santa Monica. It rules! Diane shows me all this cool stuff in LA that I never knew about, like the LA Conservancy, Clifton's, and bike lanes. For music, I like to go to Punky Reggae night at La Cita, Funky Sole night at the Echo, and AfroFunke night at Zanzibar.

Favorite LA restaurant?

I go to Tacos Por Favor in Santa Monica more times a year than probably anywhere. Cheap and yummy.

Favorite LA bar?

For dancing, La Cita. For a dive I like Lost & Found. I'm also such a dork that I went to Little Joy many times because I liked the music & jukebox, and only recently learned that it's a big hipster place. I'm not sure if that makes me cool or lame.

Favorite LA landmark?

Griffith Park. I was really sad when it was on fire.

Favorite quote from Hamlet. Out loud this time.

"Ugh. UGGGGGHHHH!!!"

-- Julie Wolfson
© 2009 LAist

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24700 (Cal Arts' Blog)

New Sonic Realities of CalArts Alumnus Josh Senick

Josh Senick (Theater MFA 09) is an LA-based sound designer focusing on design and composition for theater. His current project Hamlet Shut Up, is playing at Sacred Fools Theater in Los Angeles  through Dec. 19. We asked Josh a few questions via e-mail  about his life and work after CalArts.

24700: In a nutshell, what are a sound designer’s responsibilities?

JS:
In theater, the sound designer’s job is always some combination of meeting the technical and creative sound requirements of a production in collaboration with the show’s director.  The creative requirements begin with determining the sound effect and reinforcement needs of the production. This involves answering questions like: What sound effects, ambiances and music does the script explicitly and implicitly call for?  How should these be conveyed to the audience?  Will the actors or musicians need microphones?  How should they sound to the audience? The sound designer then decides what equipment will achieve the desired results, and finds or creates the required sound effects and music.

24700: Tell us about your work in Hamlet Shut Up.

JS: Hamlet Shut Up is a one-of-a-kind production.  I was very excited about the show when I was first approached by the Sacred Fools because the concept is excellent, and the production directly builds upon some of my previous work. It’s helped me strengthen some skills I wanted to continue to work on, namely improvisation at the piano.

Director Jonas Oppenheim’s goal with Hamlet Shut Up was to find a way to tell the story in such a way that it could be understood and enjoyed by anyone, no matter what language they speak–and turn Hamlet into a comedy in the process.  He wanted a silent movie-style accompaniment with specific references to more modern music for comedic accents.  I started attending rehearsals and just playing along with the scenes as Jonas staged them.  I worked from a book of silent film accompaniments to get started.  As the weeks went on, I composed some themes for characters and moments in the play, and pulled scores for the music we’d be quoting for musical puns and jokes.

By the time we reached tech, I had made choices for about two-thirds of the show, and improvised filler for all the gaps.  The show is still in a bit of flux, which is part of the fun of live theater.  Just as the actors continue to make new discoveries about their characters and motivations through the run, I’m discovering better accompaniments and better fillers to make the show better each night.

“Ophelia Foreshadows Drowning” from Hamlet Shut Up:

24700: How did you get interested in sound/composing?
JS:
I started out as a musician.  I’ve played piano since I was in first grade and finished my formal music training with a B.A. in Music and Theater at Case Western Reserve University and the Cleveland Institute of Music.  I also acted all the way through my first year of undergrad.  After playing Curly in a “Guffmanesque” production of Oklahoma, I felt I could do a better job than that musical director and the other musical directors I’d worked with up to that point.  I started playing in pit bands after that summer and quickly landed my first jobs as a musical director.  I pursued that until I finished my undergrad, but I was getting tired of the long hours and little pay offered to community theater musical directors. (The community theaters in Cleveland are very similar to the 99-seat theater scene in L.A. except there’s no equity waiver and larger houses).

In my fourth year at Case, the theater department produced Ionesco’s Rhinoceros, a play that has the potential to be a sound-driven production.  It was the practice of our department to assign the scenic design class the same script the mainstage was producing.  I was having few strong scenic design ideas, but had strong sound design ideas.  The department was small, never had a sound designer, and the faculty had no idea how to do much besides play back a CD through the house mains.  I was taking a few electronic sound production classes at CIM and had a good idea of how to use computers and audio equipment to create and edit sound effects, and I had access to some great equipment at CIM to do my work. The day we presented our scenic designs to the director, I pulled him aside and offered ideas for the sound design as well.  He really liked them, and the school created a sound design position on the show and gave it to me.  It’s still one of my favorite productions.  The department hired me for two years to design all their mainstage productions. Since then, the music and sound have gone hand-in-hand for me.

24700: Is there work in a particular production of which you are most proud?

JS:
I don’t have a production as a whole that I am proud of at this point, but there are moments in shows in which I achieved what I consider to be “my sound.”  Both these shows took place at CalArts, and incidentally both were under the direction of Emily Mendelsohn (Theater MFA 09).  The first was in the production of Beginner, a show in which I functioned as music director, composer and sound designer.  In the second act of the play, an actor is transformed into a whale by putting on a chador with a long train, and then comes out to sing a song.  Collaborating with the costume designer, Rachel Weir (Theater MFA 09), we sewed a wireless mic into the chador, which allowed me to completely transform the sound of the actor in an unexpected and magical way.

The second was last year’s Angel of History, a site specific work we staged in a house in Val Verde.  Because of the site-specific nature of the production, Emily wanted to avoid using theatrical sound and lighting equipment.  My assistant Carrie Jones built a set of six AM radio transmitters and we buried battery operated AM radios in the ground outside the house. In the fourth act, these were unearthed by the actors after the audience was led outside the house. They started out playing nothing but ambient  static. Suddenly in the fifth act, they all started playing ghostly music.  While the audience was outside, speakers were preset in the windows of the house, turning the house into a character that recited the final poem in the play.

Sound design for television and movies may be better paying, but the sonic experience is mostly two dimensional with limited practical use for surround sound besides special effects. Why look behind you or to the side in a movie theater when you hear sound there? There’s nothing to to see. But in the moments I mentioned above, the audience is suddenly immersed in a new sonic reality: an actor you’ve been in the room with changes her costume and is transformed, not only by sight but by sound; a physical structure you spent the evening in can suddenly speak.  These are memorable moments of live theater that remind me why I will always prefer the stage to the screen, and I’m proud that they’re moments I helped create.

-- Christine N. Ziemba
© 2009
24700
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STAGE DIRECTIONS

To Bee or Knot to Bee?

Shakespeare. Theatre’s greatest writer. One of his greatest works. Oh, and all those pesky words thrown out. What do you reach for to tell the story? Props.

Named one of Los Angeles’ top 20 theatre Highlights of 2009, Sacred Fools’ Hamlet Shut Up garnered stellar reviews. Director and writer Jonas Oppenheim and the company turned the Shakespeare classic into a rollicking comedy by stripping all the words out of it. To be clear, it wasn’t silent. Grunting and shrieking and singing were part of the mix. Still. . . no words?

Oppenheim remains pleased with the final result. “It was an experiment that went really well—it’s definitely better than I thought it might be,” Oppenheim says. “It was the most collaborative process that I’ve ever done. Thirteen heads turned out to be better than one.” He says he always came with ideas for a scene, but enjoyed everyone else in the room taking a shot at figuring something out. “It was successful because we had the right people. We had a very game, confident group of actors that weren’t freaked out by the uncertainty factor.”

Prop Heavy
Sacred Fools was founded in 1997, and in its first decade had already produced over 100 full productions. Suzanne Karpinski, producer and co-artistic director of Sacred [erm... they mean co-producer of Hamlet Shut Up and former co-artistic director of Sacred Fools - Ye Webmaster], says the company strives to distinguish themselves from the profusion of 99 seat theatres in L.A. by developing their own brand of theatre. “So many theatres are ad hoc, and we wanted to make sure we’re focused and consistent in bringing works to life that are challenging. We are known to do wacky, crazy, strange new things and I think this play sums up our mission pretty well!”

There was no text, but the actors did gasp, sing and use other vocalizations, including screams when battling sharks.

Also a director, Karpinski had become friends with Oppenheim in a director’s lab. “He’s got this quirky sense of humor much like our theatre company, and I told him to come play with us,” she says, laughing. “Then he said he had this really wacky idea ….”

A short email was exchanged and the pitch was this: “Hamlet, you know, sans words.”

Karpinski says before proceeding, they took stock of the people in the company, their strengths and weaknesses. They happen to have a lot of physical comedians in the company currently well versed in slapstick, and perhaps most importantly, “actors that weren’t afraid to collaborate.”

Oppenheim, who considers himself first a playwright who usually directs his own scripts, showed up with just a 20-page treatment. The question essentially was this: How do you physicalize a play without words? Props. “It was the quickest way to communicate an idea,” Karpinski says.

Oppenheim says his plays generally are prop-specific, so on this he was confident that they were going to need a lot for Hamlet Shut Up.

“Because we threw out the dialog, we needed to be very literal,” Oppenheim says. “We needed to make absolutely sure the audience knew what was going on. Sometimes the easiest way to do that is with a prop.” Props became especially key when they made the decision early on not to mime extensively.

“One of the inherent dangers when developing a script in rehearsal is the rewriting of lines that the actors then have to memorize,” Karpinski says. “We didn’t have that issue, but every time we made a change we would inevitably add another prop. What started with 16 props grew to 250.”

The props came from everywhere. They got donations from high schools, borrowed from other theatres and relied on the cast. Matt Valle, who also played Laertes, handled the master prop duties with Aileen-Marie Scott assisting.

“We wanted to have swords that were bendable and squishy,” Karpinski says. “Swords are very phallic props, and hyper sexualized. We went through a lot of different incarnations and ended up with these silly plastic toys that would easily bend.” Their original idea was something that would have instances of … umm shall we say “sworerectile dysfunction” … on cue. “But we didn’t have the budget to make something like that,” she laughs. “Next time we do the show we’ll find a way to make it like that self-wilting flower used by clowns.”

“We wanted to make fun of men and their ‘swords,’” adds Oppenheim.

To deal with the logistics of hundreds of props, they cleverly built a simple set that had seven pieces that were actually boxes. One was so big it also acted as a table. But the actors would simply lift the lid and grab what was needed.

What could go wrong?
Hamlet’s (Derek Mehn) big attempted suicide scene became pretty graphic, as he tried to hang himself, run himself through with floppy sword and even sucked the exhaust pipe of a car. The “car” was a furniture dolly, a fake steering wheel, and a piece of rolled cardboard spray painted black became the exhaust pipe.

Even the props became smaller props. A particularly gruesome and hilarious scene had the corpse of Ophelia represented by a plush mannequin whose body parts could easily come off and be used by actors to bludgeon each other.

Props weren’t just used for big broad humor, but for sweet moments too. Karpinski describes the moment where Ophelia drowns herself. Played by Tegan Ashton Cohan, she comes on stage with a hand-made puppet of her self in one hand and a little stage with a willow tree made of wire and some fabric in another. To music, her puppet self climbs the tree and jumps into the water.

The beauty of an approach like this is that whatever happens became part of the fun. Obviously, with so many props, the occasional mishap occurred. Karp says the final act involved Stephen Simon as Horatio [Yorick, actually - Ye Webmaster] coming out doing a Chaplin-esque bit with a hat and cane that included a big lollypop. “Simon used his amazing skills to show that Horatio [Yorick, dude.  I just corrected you a second ago.  Pay attention, son! - Ye Webmaster] was a good play buddy for Hamlet, but almost every time this big lollypop would fly into pieces!”

What appealed to Oppenheim was the possibility that they could manifest the action without wasting a lot of words. “Our only reference to text in the show was the ‘To be or not to be’ part. We had two actors come out and stand next to Hamlet with bee puppets. The audience looked at it and then started to laugh as they got it.”

Still Karpinski admits the sheer number of props required special attention in rehearsals. “Our tech rehearsal looked more like a dance recital tech,” she laughs. Like dancers, the actors had to train their muscles to consistently reach for the right prop.

Music was another key to production. The show was filled with a combination of popular songs and some originally composed by Josh Senick.

“It was all about getting the audience as quickly as possible into the context of the scene, and music was another way we did that,” Karpinski says. “A purist would say we were making it all too silly and too contemporary.”

“The thing about Hamlet is it’s been sent up so many ways over the years, that it was fun to find another way that hasn’t been done before that was pleasant and surprising to the audience,” Oppenheim adds.

Looking back, Karpinski says she would have loved a master list of props from day one, but then says that if they had, half would not have been used in performances. Her advice to others with prop-heavy productions is to get two or three good people involved from the beginning. “And take good care of the props. We had limited storage but we made it a priority.” Also, each actor had a sheet to make notes of any prop they used that had become damaged or needed attention, turning the sheets in daily so the prop could get fixed.

Both Oppenheim and Karpinski want to see Hamlet Shut Up mounted again—they are looking into taking it to Edinburgh or in L.A.’s Fringe event. “The real issue right now is that because there were so many props, and so many we borrowed, it would be kind of hard to start over,” says Karpinski.

But the final result? “There were some who said to me, Gosh, I never understood Hamlet until now.”

-- Kevin M. Mitchell
© 2009 Stage Directions

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