Useless git. Plank. Slab. (Good day, sir. Ready? OK.) Tom Stoppard wanted to write a play that simultaneously teaches the audience a new language—a language in which the play itself is written. In Dogg's Hamlet he succeeds, and the play functions like a wild immersion class in the curious language of Dogg. Inspired by Wittgenstein's philosophical investigations into the acquisition of language, it tosses us straight into a group of Dogg-speaking schoolboys trying to put on an English-language version of Hamlet, leaving us to sort out a hilarious confusion of meanings based on the actions onstage.
Stoppard's companion piece, Cahoot's Macbeth, has its own points to make about the mutability of language, portraying an underground theatre group that lives in such an oppressive culture that it must stage a secret Macbeth in an apartment. When a threatening inspector arrives, the language of Macbeth takes on a freshly subversive significance.
Talent abounds in this ensemble, which must and does display equal mastery of Shakespeare and Stoppard. Rob Kerkovich, Anthony Clay Liebetrau, and Patrick Adams prove as adroit at physical comedy as they are comfortable with Shakespeare's text. Simon Russell is hilarious as their pompous headmaster and as Claudius, with the very funny Michele Brown as his oddball Gertrude. In Cahoot's Macbeth, Will Owens proves an impressive Banquo and Will Greenberg intrigues as the inspector.
Yet while the actors are more than up to the task, several directorial choices cost these plays humor and substance. Director Marah Morris has done a fine job of keeping the pace tight in this Hamlet, yet the actors perform it with such fluency in English that we utterly forget that English is supposed to be a foreign language to them.
Cahoot's Macbeth was dedicated to Czechoslovakian playwright Pavel Kohout, a well-known actor banned from working who began a small living room theatre group. It was originally the story of artists fighting for free expression behind the Iron Curtain. Here, Morris seems to have been tempted to force a new kind of relevance to an always relevant piece. She has set the play in America, given the inspector a Southern accent, and dressed the cast as anarchists. A suppressed underground theatre group? In the United States? The very flimsy transposition seems rash and weakens the play substantially. If there is censorship in the United States, it is censorship of a dramatically different nature, and of different groups. To compare us to Communist Eastern Europe is to distort our situation and cheapen theirs.
"Dogg's Hamlet, Cahoot's Macbeth," presented by the Blue House Theater Co. at the Melrose Lightspace, 7600 Melrose Ave., Hollywood. Fri.-Sun. 8:30 p.m. May 9-June 1. $10-12. (866) 219-4944.