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Clever Language Games

Dogg's Hamlet/Cahoot's Macbeth Directed By Fred Pletcher At Lowell House JCR November 15 and 16


INFLUENCED BY the philosopher Wittgenstein's theory of language, playwright Tom Stoppard developed Dogg, a dialect which uses the English language but assigns different meanings to each word. Stoppard teaches his audience Dogg in the first play of his pair, Dogg's Hamlet, and uses it to convey his point in the second, Cahoot's Macbeth. He writes: "the first is hardly a play at all without the second, which cannot be performed without the first."

In both plays, Stoppard's Dogg-speaking characters confront English speakers. These entertaining encounters owe much of their appeal, however, to the cast's versatility under the clever direction of Fred Pletcher.

Dogg's Hamlet opens with Abel, played by Fouad Onbargi, and Baker, played by Jeffrey Wise, throwing a football and yelling "Brick!" at each other. The boys' teacher Dogg, played by Andrew Watson, soon appears, calling them to order, and the audience hears its first conversation in Dogg. The dialogue is rendered intelligible only by the actors' movements, but eventually bits and pieces of the language are made clear with the help of Easy, a mover played by Amos Gelb, who speaks normal English.

The schoolboys run around under the picky eyes of their teacher in hasty preparation for a performance of Hamlet, in English, which gives Stoppard an opportunity to exploit his linguistic invention.

THE STUDENTS' PERFORMANCE of Hamlet in an unfamiliar language--English--makes their acting and dialogue purposely stilted. The result is an hilarious version of the Shakespearean play. Fox Major, played by Wood Foster, is wonderful as the gangly-legged Hamlet and constantly mistakes meanings of words--for example, by holding up three fingers when he counts to two.

Charlie, played by Linus Gelber, has the roles of both Osric and Ophelia in Hamlet. He is especially funny in drag as Ophelia, the facetious lover of both Laertes and Hamlet, and performs her death scene with drawn-out agony.

The Lady, played by Anne Mini, watches the play with the audience and is so impressed with the performance of Hamlet that she requests an encore. Her request is granted and the entire play is acted again in double time. This performance steals the show because of the actors' versatility with quick and accurate character changes and facial expressions.

CAHOOT'S MACBETH also has its clever moments. Stoppard wrote the play under the direction of Czechoslovakian playwright Pavel Kohout, who experienced the decade of "normalization" following the fall of the Dubcek government in his country. During this period, the government prevented many people, including actors, from pursuing their careers. This repression provides the context for the second play.

Like Dogg's Hamlet, Cahoot's is a play within a play; it is set in the living room of a flat somewhere in Prague. The actors are performing Macbeth for an audience of other displaced actors when the snide, cynical government Inspector (Andrew Watson) enters the apartment and interrupts the act. He chides Landovsky (Chuck Cannon) for being an actor who must sweep factories and sell newspapers to make money.

Watson is excellent as the fast-talking and critical interrogator who loves to give the actors a hard time. After he insists on watching the rest of the play with the audience, Macbeth continues. But the disgusted and frustrated actors refuse to emote, providing a humorous rendition which far outstrips their first, deadpan performance. Jeffrey Wise as Banquo loosens up and Linus Gelber, as Ross, becomes delightfully cynical. Cannon makes a marked improvement here as well since he no longer tries to convey Macbeth's determination by unnecessarily shouting the lines.

Again Macbeth is interrupted when Easy, the character from the first play, enters the apartment delivering wood. Easy now speaks Dogg and tries desperately to catch the attention of the actors who are in the middle of their performance. The only actor who understands Dogg is Cahoot (Wise), who never learned the language, but rather, as he puts it, "caught" it. Eventually the rest of the actors "catch" Dogg and continue Macbeth in Stoppard's language.

The actors have turned the tables on the Inspector by speaking a language he cannot understand. Frantic, he yells to his chief over the phone, "If this isn't free expression, I don't know what is." Despite his anger, or perhaps because of it, the Inspector himself unintentionally catches Dogg and forgets English. He is left struggling to explain himself to his chief over the phone.

IN BOTH PLAYS, the actors aptly demonstrate their flexibility with character changes, but they excel most in hamming. Cannon, for example, tries too hard to aspire to the dramatic ideal of Macbeth but does well as the frustrated and displaced Landovsky. Kimberly Estes performs vigorously whether she is Mrs. Dogg or the nagging "Jewish mother" Gertrude in Hamlet or the cunning Lady Macbeth.

Wise is successful both as confused and somewhat dippy Baker in the first play and as Banquo in the second. Paul Goldstein is convincing in serious roles in both plays: Polonius/Laertes in the first and Duncan/Macduff in the second.

The set for both plays is basic. For Hamlet, boxes are piled up to form a wall, which creates a backdrop for scene changes. These consist of different symbols held up on a pole, including a moon; this silliness keeps the play's atmosphere light. For the Macbeth set, the JCR becomes a simple living room; both plays utilize the narrow space to its full potential.

Overall, both Stoppard's message and his storyline are not always immediately apparent to the audience. The use of Dogg in both plays, however, results in amusing games with language. Stoppard's clever interplay of regular English with his own newfound dialect, especially in the Inspector's dialogue in Macbeth, makes them inevitably confusing, but well worth the effort.

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