By Tom Stoppard; Directed by Cheryl Faraone
Produced by PTP/NYC (Potomac Theatre Project)
Off Broadway, Play Revival
Runs through 8.3.19
Atlantic Stage 2, 330 West 16th Street
by Ken Kaissar on 7.25.19
Christopher Marshall, Christo Grabowski, and Tara Giordano in Cahoot's Macbeth. Photo by Stan Barouh.
BOTTOM LINE: An excellent production of Tom Stoppard's 1979 pairing of plays.
Understanding Shakespeare can be difficult, especially if you’re unfamiliar with the with the story or text before you see it. But after twenty minutes of struggling to understand a fictitious language called Dogg, Shakespeare’s language miraculously becomes super accessible and actually gives your ears and brain a rest. Can you imagine that?
At least, that was my experience watching Tom Stoppard’s Dogg’s Hamlet, Cahoot’s Macbeth, excellently performed by PTP/NYC. The play is comprised of two one-acts written to share the same bill. Separating these two plays would render them completely meaningless. In Act One, a troupe of student actors prepares the stage for a production of Hamlet. Their native tongue is Dogg, a fictitious language made up of words that sound like English, but that are reassigned different definitions. For example, “afternoons” is a dismissive insult and “useless’” means “good day.” You can see the hilarious misunderstanding this yields when a non-Dogg-speaking deliveryman (Matthew Ball) arrives on the scene.
By Stoppard’s own admission, Act One is meant to be an entertaining tutorial to familiarize the audience with the language of Dogg. More punch is packed in Act Two, in which a troupe of actors gather to perform Macbeth in a living room. The scene is quite realistic and based on the underground theatre scene of Prague in the 1970s, in which actors performed clandestinely in living rooms to evade the secret Soviet police. At this particular performance, a Soviet inspector (Tara Giordano) has infiltrated the performance and is ready to bring the unlawful Shakespeare performers to justice. The performers are saved when the deliveryman from Act One shows up speaking Dogg. The incomprehensible language becomes a clever workaround to avoid further legal trouble.
The play is a delightful exploration of the function of words, making us abundantly aware of how arbitrary language is at its core. While language barriers can be frustrating, they grow thin with repetition, and Stoppard employs brilliant devices to help us learn Dogg. At one point, characters start singing the Sinatra standard “My Way” in Dogg. One needs only to substitute the real words of the song to acquire a flood of Doggian vocabulary.
Under the direction of Cheryl Faraone, the cast brings great commitment and energy to this production. The action is very physical and if you find yourself growing tired of the wordplay, you’ll still find the staging satisfying. Most importantly, the play succeeds because the actors seem to have mastered Dogg, and they legitimately appear to be communicating with one another in this foreign language. If we don’t buy into Dogg as a real language, the play is reduced to little more than an exercise from a children's acting class. Stoppard’s play is in very capable hands here. Like most Stoppard plays, this one is a response to real world events, namely the post-WWII Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia. Stoppard rarely wastes precious stage time educating his audience about the history that inspires his work, so your enjoyment of the piece will be enhanced if you take a moment to Google underground theatre in Czechoslovakia, though this is a topic that can bear a great deal more scholarship (nudge, nudge, to all you budding theatre historians out there).
I’ve probably tried to pick up and read Stoppard’s play about a dozen times only to experience great aggravation and fatigue by about page ten. I’m grateful to PTP/NYC for producing Dogg’s Hamlet, Cahoot’s Macbeth and giving me a chance to discover and experience its charm and brilliance. Not many theatre companies are adventurous enough to produce this piece, so take advantage of the opportunity to see how great it is on its feet.
(Dogg's Hamlet, Cahoot's Macbeth plays at the Atlantic Stage 2, 330 West 16th Street, through August 3, 2019. The running time is 1 hour 45 minutes with an intermission. Performances are Tuesdays at 7; Wednesdays at 2 and 7; Thursdays through Saturdays at 7; and Sundays at 2. Tickets are $37.50, $22.50 for students and seniors. and are available at PTPNYC.org or by calling 866-811-4111.)
Dogg's Hamlet, Cahoot's Macbeth is by Tom Stoppard. Directed by Cheryl Faraone. Set Design by Mark Evancho. Costume Design by Chris Romagnol and Rebecca Lafón. Lighting Design by Hallie Zieselman. Sound Design by Ellery Rhodes. Stage Manager is Alex Williamson.
The cast is Matthew Ball, Olivia Christie, Denise Cormier, Tara Giordano, Christo Grabowski, Will Koch, Emily Ma, Katie Marshall, Christopher Marshall, Madeleine Russell, Peter Schmitz, Lior Selve, Lucy Van Atta, Zach Varricchione, and Connor Wright.