Acting is the art of seeming, not being,” Carl Stone Jr. intones self-importantly to the wide-eyed ingénue Elfie Fay, the on (and off) stage Ophelia to his Hamlet. In cynically giving her the cold hard facts about the “world’s second oldest profession,” i.e. acting, he tells her that if he were to play the part of an actor who was playing the role of Hamlet, “that would still be acting.” The irony is, of course, that we the audience are watching an actor, in this instance Kent Kuran ’08, doing just that: playing the part of an actor who is playing the role of Hamlet. Despite his acting philosophy, he can’t help but “be” Hamlet. And so go the metaphysical situations of Charles Ludlam’s 1975 play of the Ridiculous Theater movement, Stage Blood, about an acting troupe whose lives begin to look an awful lot like those of the characters they play.
Like standing between two mirrors and staring at the infinite progression of identical images trapped in the glass, Ludlam wants us to explore how life imitates art imitates life. While many of his plays invert gender roles or end up in chaotic orgies, this one takes a subtler route. In Stage Blood, the role of the viewer is inverted. As director Whitney Mosery ’08 told me, “The audience is backstage, for better or for worse.”
In fact, I got a literal taste of the backstage feel in going to see a run-through of the show on Monday evening. The young cast took little notice of my black notebook and me and went about their merry, goofing-off way. One of them, Carolyn Edelstein ’10, flitted about with a digital camera, capturing a fellow actor’s fake beard-as-wig costume improvisation as well as an absurd arrangement of props. Without hesitation, I picked her out as the ingénue/Ophelia actress due to her wide-eyed enthusiasm and vivacious grin. Clearly, life was imitating art was imitating life…Even Mosery’s role as director represented the type of inversion and topsy-turvy reversal loved so well by the Ridiculous Theater crowd. Though supposedly a care-free student like her cast, she often had to play the role of Mother Hen to her exuberant brood of actors, coaxing them to take their places and wearily telling them, “Yes, you may go to the bathroom now.”
The conflation of the onstage show and the backstage life, both in the play and in the real-life rehearsal I watched, gets at the heart of the play and the movement Ludlam’s works embody. By skirting around the classical “fourth wall” of the stage to see what exactly lies beyond it, the play exposes to us, the viewers, just how inextricable our lives are from the stories we know. We are what we read, it seems.
But life and art do not merely melt together into one grand metaphysical stew. Elements of one or the other always turn up to plague the characters. Shakespeare’s Hamlet is, according to Stage Blood’s characters, a murder mystery tinged by “the streak of the irrational.” Hamlet is haunted by the ghost of his (supposedly) murdered father. Yet, he is also haunted by his confusion over his mother’s behavior, the collapse of his relationship with Ophelia, his uncertainty over which course of action to take, his potential madness, even by the memory of long-dead court jester, Yorick. Many of the best adaptations and spin-offs of Hamlet embrace this overabundance of ghosts: in Paul Rudnick’s I Hate Hamlet, the main character is haunted by the ghost of Hamlet past, John Barrymore, while in Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, two seemingly minor characters stumble in and out of their scenes with the “main” characters as they float behind the scenes of the original play, haunting the empty rooms of Elsinore. Ludlam’s work tips its hat to the idea of haunting by having too many actual ghosts to make a final, rational explanation for everything plausible.
Beyond literally using the irrational in the form of ghosts, the play shows how literature haunts us and our language. I myself have read Hamlet a half dozen times, seen it performed at least that many, and have even, in high school, performed in it myself as a female Horatio (a twist Ludlam would have surely loved). Each time, Act V causes me to catch my breath as if it were the first read-through. I am haunted by Hamlet’s questions and phrases, and I see its echoes in almost everything else I read. In Stage Blood, characters at first recite lines to each other backstage jokingly and then as serious expressions of their emotions, with no line demarcating play-acting from real life. The best works of the Western canon – or any great piece of literature – do more than reflect passive mirror images of life; rather, they infuse and enrich our lives with their narratives.
Thus, Stage Blood reminds us of why classics are classic while also creating a perspective all its own. In fact, this could be the very mission statement of the revitalized Princeton Shakespeare Company, as headed by Georgie Sherrington ’08. In an attempt to overhaul their image of being too esoteric for their own Bard-loving good, the Company has recently been putting on comedies and 20th century reckonings of Shakespeare before turning back to “serious plays” like Richard II this spring. Nonetheless, Ludlam’s play, for all its farcical twists and physical gags, does take a serious look at the implications of Hamlet and asks us to reexamine why it is so enduring.
I know this has not been a typical review, detailing which actors did well or which set elements were most effective, but, frankly, the version I saw on Monday night, rife with technical issues, was too rough for a fair critique. Yet, for those of us who wrestle with literature’s place in today’s world and/or just like a good joke about men in tights, then seeing Stage Blood this weekend is a must.