Tom Stoppard’s Dogg’s Hamlet, Cahoot’s Macbeth skirts very close to the kind of acting exercise you might find practiced by an improv group: in the first half, which is largely in gibberish (which is subtitled in the script but untranslated here), a builder who speaks English arrives to construct a set for actors about to perform Hamlet. However, they speak “Dogg,” a meticulous reassigning of words and word meanings. Thus, for example, “Undertake sun pelican crash frankly sun mousehole?” in fact means, “Swap you one cream cheese for one egg?” Everything is eventually sorted out and a very condensed Hamlet (in the original language) commences. (The premise was inspired by Wittgenstein’s concept of language games.) In the second act, a woman hosts a production of Macbeth in her home as her Soviet-like government has banned all art perceived as hostile to the state. Macbeth easily falls into this category, since “when you get a universal and timeless writer like Shakespeare, there’s a strong feeling that he could be spitting in the eyes of the beholder.”
What prevents Dogg’s Hamlet, Cahoot’s Macbeth from playing like a scene from David Ives’ All in the Timing is Mr. Stoppard’s ability to juggle humor, tension, and menace all at the same time; like Harold Pinter’s early plays, there seems to be little distinction between a joke and a potential murder. Furthermore, he ups the ante by setting his drama in a world where language is most certainly not a game but a political tool and a force for change, one that is constantly under threat from meaningless, administrational jargon. At the center of all of this is the Inspector (Jason O’Connell) who investigates the second production. As played by Mr. O’Connell, he begins as a buffoonish, Eastern European bureaucrat but quickly snaps into an alternately calm and raving sociopath. His Inspector is a man who could swallow a man’s tongue without his heart rate passing 85 beats per minute, but who might go ballistic if you mention his father. The performance is utterly brilliant; moving at the lackadaisical pace of a ‘seventies method actor—his delivery is halting but completely natural, recalling Al Pacino and Vincent D’Onofrio at their peaks—Mr. O’Connell uses his height and his weight to intimidate, though always impresses us with the sense that both of these physical advantages are redundant, since the Inspector is a man who would never have to witness the deaths for which he is responsible. His sidekick (an also excellent LeeAnne Hutchison) presents a stony demeanor compared to her logorrheic colleague, occasionally muttering thickly-accented monosyllables and dressed like Elsa Lanchester in The Bride of Frankenstein.
It has always baffled me how Tom Stoppard has gotten such short shrift in this city (I count four Broadway revivals in the last fifteen years, including the upcoming Real Thing), but the Phoenix Theatre Ensemble had done an admirable job here, demonstrating that the intellectual and comedic rewards of his work are abundant, even when he is at his most playfully experimental. New York, take notice.