Prince and fools

"Quinnopolis vs. Hamlet" is a bit of physical theater that tells the story of two bufoons who are forced to play "The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark."

The two use Shakespeare’s words, a few puppets, a smattering of gibberish and a lot of pantomime to tell the tale of the famous Dane. The buffoons, however, get more than they bargain for in this production when the spirit that haunts the stage is not that of Hamlet’s father, but of Shakespeare’s play itself.

Quinnopolis is a new theater company consisting of actors Jeremy Beck and Christopher Patrick Mullen and director David Dalton. This piece was produced by Columbia University’s Arts Uptown Program, which provides space to small theater companies for one-night performances to cultivate new works. The trio started out creating brief skits with Mullen and Beck as buffoons who use physical comedy, pantomime and puppetry to spin a yarn. "Quinnopolis vs. Hamlet" is their first full-length show in this style.

Actually, the production is a weird concoction. The two actors employ the play’s text in a bizarre attempt to escape from the spirit of Hamlet the Character. To be sure, it is minimalist theater. The character have no names, they manipulate a camera on a tripod in place of interactions with Hamlet and, in fact, try to avoid playing their roles altogether in a very confusing way. It seems to blend Samuel Beckett and Shakespeare with a little Bill Irwin pantomime thrown in for laughs. The result is an utterly absurd and maddening 90 minutes.

The set consists of black curtains, an easel, a large shipping container and a few hand props.

The play shortens the action and list of characters. It is performed entirely by the two guards who first see the ghost of Hamlet’s father on the battlements of Elsinore. The two, literally frightened out of their wits, imagine the gory consequences. The main characters, from Hamlet to Laertes to Ophelia, are enacted in capriciously arranged scenes.

That the play works at all must be credited to the talents of Beck and Mullen, who are equally at home with slapstick as with existential angst. With the aid of a little pink dress and some innocently sexy poses, Beck actually becomes Ophelia — even without the willing suspension of disbelief. A black suit jacket transforms him into a sullen Hamlet.

Mullen is a regal Claudius in an ermine robe, plus a worldly foolish Laertes in baggy trousers. He satirizes the conventional wisdom of Laertes’ "advice" speech in a way that would be impossible in most play readings.

Hamlet also is played by the aforementioned camera, which is outfitted in the black jacket, while Gertrude is a floor mop. Both are given a surreal life by the guards’ exaggerated reactions. Two painted sticks become lances, swords and tightrope poles. The actors are so good at mime that the final scene, which consists entirely of stabbing motions, makes one uncomfortable with the violence, even though the sword thrusts are obviously passing under their arms.

The tour de force is based on Hamlet’s famous soliloquy, which Beck delivers straight, while Mullen provides a counterpoint of vaguely remembered snippets and modern misinterpretations. Also notable is the "get thee to a nunn’ry" scene between Hamlet and Ophelia. The contrast between the nasty verbiage and tender sentiment is palpable as Ophelia shrivels up before our very eyes. These lucid moments are a welcome relief. Ultimately, the only interesting parts of the show are the speeches from "Hamlet" that are delivered straight.

Between the gibberish and bizarre deliberations, the scenes seem more designed to call attention to the Quinnopolis Theater Company method and the extraordinary talents of its three members than to offer any new insight into Shakespeare’s tragedy.

The strenuous antics of these intense clowns are well crafted, but they aren’t particularly funny. You find yourself wishing you were seeing a production that followed the Prince’s own advice: to "play the play as it was written."

Some of the physical shtick the trio created show inventive theatrical minds at work. These are talented men with an approach to theater that shows promise, but in conjuring up the ghost of Hamlet, they have more than met their match.

Quinnopolis vs. Hamlet
Through Sept. 25
The Walnut Street Independence Studio Theater
825 Walnut St.
Tickets: $10 to $30