|Aimee Rose Ranger in Dogg's Hamlet|
Perhaps I've been dragging my feet because the Whistlers are always telling me they're looking forward to what I'm going to say about their current show, good or bad. And I kind of half-believe them. I've always thought they were smart; now (oddly enough) they think I'm smart, too! And there's so much to unpack in Dogg's and Cahoot's! It's so tiring. Luckily, I hear they've been getting good houses, so they didn't really need the Hub Review for publicity; after five years of reviews from fans like me (at one of their shows I was literally the only person in the audience), they have finally been "discovered" by the print and radio critics as a "brand new company!" Uh-huh; whatever; it's still a good thing.
And duty calls, so here goes nothing (I can't disappoint the Whistlers, can I?). Dogg and Cahoot's are basically an intertwined meditation on Wittgenstein and rebellion. The great Austrian philosopher, of course, is one of the towering intellectual figures of the twentieth century - despite a very slim published output; and one of his obsessions was the relationship between mental representation, the world itself (if you will), and the mechanics of language. Dogg's Hamlet was conceived when Stoppard came upon one of the master's discussions in which he posited that separate gangs of workmen who spoke different languages could quite easily cooperate as long as words like "plank" and "slab" had a consistent (and serendipitous) linguistic correlation for both groups. For instance, if in one language, "plank" meant, well, "plank," but in the correlated language it meant "Next!," the men could easily get on with their work, yelling their monosyllabic instructions to each other, unaware that the mental representations in their respective heads were actually completely different.
Now to some, this may sound only like a gay Austrian egghead's extrapolation of the common concept of the pun; but trust me, it was big news to philosophers (sorry, if I went into why, I'd be here all day). At any rate, Stoppard took Wittgenstein's philosophic-linguistic insight and ran with it into the intersecting worlds of class, culture and politics, where he invented Dogg, a "language" (a bit like Nadsat, the slang devised by Anthony Burgess for A Clockwork Orange) spoken by the students of a strange British public school attempting to stage Shakespeare's Hamlet.
|Ludwig von, in a photo by lover Ben Richards.|
But Stoppard, like Wittgenstein, is also attempting to limn his schoolboys' inner state of mind; and we begin to perceive that Dogg is a manifestation of their oppression and incomprehension. When they rehearse Hamlet, for instance, they speak Shakespeare's English straight (which they probably cannot understand at all); but when they're alone, they switch immediately back to Dogg. And that mystified deliveryman suddenly gets the hang of Dogg when he, too, is mistreated by the fatuous schoolmasters; when he sputters that they're "Fascists!," suddenly he's through the linguistic looking-glass, and talking Dogg like a native.
What comes next is an amusing send-up of student Shakespeare that is, of course, utterly incomprehensible to said students (and thus hilarious to us; Wittgenstein's paradox reversed, in effect). But things get a bit more complex in Cahoot's Macbeth, in which we find ourselves transported to an underground production of another Shakespearean tragedy, somewhere on the other side of what used to be called the Iron Curtain. Here a group of persecuted actors are in "cahoots" with each other (another pun!) to perform an even more pointed critique of power gone mad - they're actually doing it in a living room, though (lit by floor lamps), as they've been locked out of their city's theatres by the oppressive state.
The secret police (or the critics?) catch up with them even here, however, and the rebels face a fresh round of interrogation - until Easy, the deliveryman from the earlier play, comes stumbling in, still speaking Dogg, and delivering not merely props but also a kind of linguistic virus: a language not of direct rebellion, but of subversion.
|Nate Gundy menaces Scott Sweatt in Cahoot's Macbeth|
Now I'm afraid this is where I feel Mr. Stoppard goes a little "Pepsi Generation" on me. Indeed, as Cahoot's ends with an image straight outta Pink Floyd's The Wall (the play and the album were both completed in 1979), I couldn't help but remember the unfortunately simplistic argument of the playwright's later Rock'n'Roll - which seemed to claim that Syd Barrett caused the Velvet Revolution, or something like that. Sigh. I'm not too sympathetic toward grand intellectual visions of pop pleasures, and I'm a little dismayed to see a fantastic critic of over-reaching dialectics like Stoppard fall so easily himself into what amounts to a dialectic (albeit a funny one). Still, I'll admit the subversive elements of pop culture certainly infiltrated the Eastern bloc countries, and probably had more to do with the collapse of those regimes than Shakespeare ever did. (So I'll go as far as Cahoot's, but not as far as Rock'n'Roll.)
At any rate, that's the critical exegesis of the text. What about the production? Well, it is (or was) a solid, knockabout one; a bit broad in places, but brilliant in other spots, and always clever and alive to the intellectual arguments of the plays. We won't see a better one locally. I felt Whistler stalwart Jen O'Connor, though strong, took a back seat this time around - the star turns came from Aimee Rose Ranger (as the obnoxious over-achiever who got every school prize, as well as the lead in Hamlet), Nate Gundy (perhaps miscast as the chilling police inspector of Cahoot's, but making the most of it anyway), and Mac Young as the happy-go-lucky everyman who gladly threw himself through a literal barrier of language over and over. There wasn't really a weak link in the cast, however, with particularly sharp cameos coming from Becca Lewis and Michael Underhill. (My one quibble was with Scott Sweatt's take on Lady Macbeth, in drag - his work was subtle, but it seemed to be coming from some other play.) And as usual, the Whistlers made the evocative most of a basically bare space (a particular strength of director Meg Taintor). Oh btw, I forgot to mention in the Hubbies (I've corrected that post) the atmospheric lighting design PJ Strachman devised for Cahoot's, which actually made Stoppard's stripped-down Macbeth the spookiest I've ever seen. As always, I await with pleasure the next outing from this adventurous, up-and-coming (can I still say that after five years?) company.