Talking about Dogg’s Hamlet, Cahoot’s Macbeth is almost impossible, as language is a malleable layer of its storytelling: this play is meant to show you a world, rather than describing it in plain ol’ English. Besides, reading it can drive you mad.
Potomac Theatre Project’s Dogg’s… is a delightful romp. How many times can you witness the entirety of Hamlet, performed in (masterfully) ridiculous slapstick style, twice in a row no less? The built in “encore” is the cherry on top, with the ensemble racing through “spotting the ghost,” the prince’s feigned madness, the meta Murder of Gonzago, to the end where everybody, in this case comically, dies. You’ll be surprised how many times you laugh out loud at the work of a supposedly “serious” author. Tom Stoppard became my favorite playwright after Arcadia charmed every last cell in my body; he’s often considered cerebral or “highbrow,” even criticized for it. To me, the author’s sincerity and ardent curiosity stand out and make those so-called cerebral plays moving and engaging.
In Dogg, we are taught a new language in the first half, and learn to celebrate it in the second half. The two short acts complement each other in a highly entertaining evening. But of course, a Tom Stoppard text wouldn’t be simply entertaining. Inspired by Wittgenstein’s philosophy (“the limits of my language means the limits of my world”), the play’s worlds are also defined by language. The piece challenges you to imagine two groups accidentally understanding each other though they speak completely different tongues. The first is Dogg’s language, which seems to have an English-like vocabulary, and is constructed in a way that seems grammatically logical: you can understand the structure of words and phrases as they are spoken, without making sense of them. For instance, “bicycles” is a curse word, and “very true” means “needs salt.” We ease into this through a group of schoolchildren and their headmaster, Dogg, but just before you think you’re beginning to grasp it, Easy enters, speaking English (Matthew Ball delivers this delightful character with charming bemusement and grounds this surreal episode with ease). The interaction becomes a sequence of “Who’s on first” type of hilarity: Dogg (Peter Schmitz) hands out flags to the audience and counts the numbers to “what, dunce”—eleven, twelve—while getting a confused question from Easy.
Dogg’s Hamlet continues to exercise the hilarity of confusion, and its sole purpose seems to be to disrupt any preconceived notion of how a proper Shakespeare play is done, making sacrilege of language itself. But the school-play aesthetic and the pure joy that permeates the production also say: This is how you respect Shakespeare, how you respect language, not by sticking to what’s known, but by messing it all up and going with it. At the end of Dogg’s Hamlet, Easy strolls in with a cube, saying, “cube” to all. It means thanks in that universe—or not.
In a way, this is a play tailored to theatre people, with an innate “yes and” attitude. This is further explored in the second half of the program, Cahoot’s Macbeth, inspired by Pavel Kohout’s living room theatre in late 1970s Czechoslovakia, where banned artists put up theatre productions in apartments. The Atlantic theatre space gets transformed into a living room and we see the three witches, illuminated by string lights lining their hoods (a great touch by lighting designer Hallie Zieselman). The performance is interrupted by an inspector (Tara Giordano) who perhaps sees something suspicious about the hostess (Lucy Van Atta) opening her apartment to a slew of strangers to put up a production of Macbeth without a set or proper effects. Giordano’s inspector interacts with the performers, once famed and now scrapping by with survival jobs: selling papers, working at a restaurant.
Dogg’s language makes another appearance here as Easy joins the mix, bridging the two plays. Here, the actors catch on and begin communicating with Easy, as well as each other, in Dogg with ease, much to the inspector’s annoyance. This is said about Dogg’s language: “You catch it.” It’s absolutely satisfying when the hostess blurts out: “He’s got a two-ton artichoke out there!” (“artichoke” means “lorry”) or when Cahoot (Christo Grabowski) and Easy say “Geraniums (How are you?)” and “Gymshoes (fine)” to each other.
To me what shines through Dogg’s Hamlet, Cahoot’s Macbeth is the inevitability of art, and the desire to communicate. In Kahout’s time, artists made theatre in living rooms to evade governmental prosecution, because theatre is a need, not just entertainment for them. Circumstances are different in 2019 America, but I think about Shakespeare productions in parking lots, the rise of site-specific theatre coming out of a lack of accessible space, and the renaissance of practical theatre magic as a result of a lack of budget. I think about the life of theatre artists today in New York, creating work that seems to people outside the field utterly useless and without profit, but you keep going because there’s a burning ache for you to do work for anyone who’s willing to listen, because creating is as essential as eating or breathing.
The advancement of experimental theatre and avant-garde art is sometimes nothing more than problem solving—it’s ironic that the supposedly most poetic, most irrational bunch of people in our society can be the most practical too.
Director Cheryl Faraone notes at the beginning that Stoppard had said that the first one isn’t a play at all, but without it the second one wouldn’t make any sense. Indeed, the first one is an exercise in listening, and the second one expands on the inevitability and strength of creativity. And as Hamlet said, “the cat will meow and dog will have his day”: Artists will persevere.