Throughout his long and fecund career, British playwright Tom Stoppard has never been at a loss for words. In Dogg's Hamlet, Cahoot's Macbeth, two short plays from the 1970s that are currently being offered by St. Louis Shakespeare, Stoppard's very theme is words. The opener, Dogg's Hamlet, is little more than an extended sketch that indulges itself in the playfulness of vocabulary; the second one-act, Cahoot's Macbeth, considers the subversive force and seditious power of the spoken word.
Dogg's Hamlet is yet another piece (not all that dissimilar from Anthony Burgess' A Clockwork Orange) in which an author feels compelled to create his own vocabulary. Perhaps it's mere jingoism on my part, but I don't understand why writers like Stoppard and Burgess, whose command of English is majestical, are the same writers who feel compelled to use language to befuddle their audiences. At the very least, it smacks of a cynical elitism. Nevertheless, once again we find ourselves as intruders in a world where words as we define them count for next to nothing. As several prep school students begin to spout their gibberish about breakfasts (that have naught to do with eating) and bicycles (without wheels), the spectator has to choose between waiting out the confusion or going along for the proverbial ride.
Yet it's a highly enjoyable ride, buoyed by the antic disposition that marks Hamlet's feigned madness. We are treated to appealingly goofy sight gags galore, farce straight from Laurel and Hardy, kazoos and Offenbach. Eventually it comes time for the students to stage a truncated production of Hamlet. Have you ever had trouble following Shakespeare? If so, this is the show for you because after twenty minutes of gobbledygook, when the actors finally begin their "greatest lines" rendition of Hamlet, the text is not only clear, it's embraceable. Shakespeare becomes our lifeline to security, which might well be the simple point that Stoppard is trying to convey.
As directed by Doug Finlayson and Jef Awada, ten rambunctious actors (who are kept so busy that they actually feel like a lot fewer than that) run, skip and just generally flow through the 45 minutes. Then there is Phillip Bozich, who plays a befuddled outsider to the school (he's the character who links the two plays). Bozich is affectionately reminiscent of movie comedian Billy Gilbert, who enjoyed a career (Field Marshal Herring in Chaplin's The Great Dictator, the determined emissary in His Girl Friday) of making dumb endearing.
Cahoot's Macbeth is something else altogether. At the outset, actors are performing a modest living-room version of the Scottish play; the living room, we soon discover, is in an unidentified totalitarian country. We know that Stoppard was prompted to write this script after witnessing the oppression that settled over Czechoslovakia after the failed attempt by Alexander Dubcek and other reformers to liberalize Communism in the late 1960s. But the precise locale of Cahoot's Macbeth is secondary; it might be occurring wherever "normalization" has been imposed on artists, wherever the State views its citizenry as nonpersons.
The schism between the artist and authority is always a matter of profound concern. Shakespeare himself dealt with this issue in Twelfth Night, when he pitted the life-loving Sir Toby Belch against the humorless Malvolio. Because Malvolio loathes what he cannot understand, his ominous presence threatens Sir Toby's very existence. Shakespeare knew whereof he wrote: 60 years after the premiere of Twelfth Night, the puritanical Oliver Cromwell closed the theaters in London. We can only assume that for the next several years, Shakespeare was performed in living rooms.
But this production of Cahoot's Macbeth falls flat. Despite the intrusion of an intimidating inspector, there is no menace or tension whatsoever. Nor are the actors who are supposed to be good at their roles in Macbeth nearly so effective as the actors who are supposed to be bad in Hamlet. We are left with an evening in which the two plays are as the moody Dane might have put it jarringly "out of joint." O cursed spite, that no one was around to set it right.