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Rogue Festival 2016: How I managed to break “Hamlet”

IN THE February 20 ISSUE

FROM THE 2016 Articles,
andArts & Entertainment
SECTIONS

by Tim Mooney

The 2016 Rogue Festival is almost here. KRL has been featuring several Festival performer preview articles the last couple of weeks, and still have more to go including three in this issue! This week we also have an article about the Festival itself. We will also be reviewing many of the shows once the Festival begins in early March, and we may even do some more video interviews. Check out our Rogue Performer event page for more information as it becomes available, and you can also check out the Rogue 2016 website.

Since 1997, I’ve had this love affair going on with the works of Molière. Starting with Tartuffe, I began writing new English variations of his plays in rhymed iambic pentameter. Re-writing The Miser, The Doctor in Spite of Himself, The Imaginary Invalid, The Misanthrope, and about a dozen others, I seemed to have found my niche in life…writing and, eventually, performing Molière’s plays, often playing the roles that he himself played 350 years ago. It was a short leap from there to creating my first one-man show, Molière than Thou. I’ve been touring Molière than Thou since the Fall of 2002.

Rogue

Timothy Mooney in BREAKNECK HAMLET!

Virginia, 2004: I was catching a drink after the show with a fan, and he suggested: “You know, you really ought to submit your resume to the local theatre company, because I hear they’re still looking for their Macbeth!”

Really? Macbeth? Me? Somebody saw me portray my silly collection of Molière fops and cuckolds and Lotharios, and imagined me as one of Shakespeare’s heaviest of tragic anti-heroes? At the very least a badass general in Duncan’s army? My world was turned upside down. Somebody out there looked and saw, in me, the Shakespearean character that was as far as I could imagine from my own personal self. Somewhere, in the course of my then-30-year experiment with theatre, I had grown into a performer of “Shakespearean proportions”…without ever noticing!

I started thinking about auditioning for Shakespearean stuff, but I couldn’t choose which character I should audition with. There were all of these awesome characters out there, but choosing any one of them only seemed to limit the variety of roles for which I might be considered.

I decided to study them all.

More particularly, I decided to memorize one monologue from every Shakespeare play, so that no matter what play I auditioned for, I could do a monologue from that play.

Five years, 38 monologues, and six sonnets later, I had my one-man show, Lot o’ Shakespeare. (Some of you may have seen it here in Fresno, when I performed it at the Rogue in 2012!) Each play is represented by a Bingo ball: I spin the Bingo cage and whatever ball comes out, that’s the monologue I perform. The audience plays along with their own “IAGO” card. (On average, 50% of any audience gets that joke.)

Coincidentally, it was in 2012 that I realized that all of the monologues from the History plays (there are ten of them, from King John through Henry VIII) made more sense when performed, not randomly, but in chronological order.

With a little rearranging, and adding more monologues and bridging narrative to the mix, I soon had my second one-man Shakespeare play: Shakespeare’s Histories; Ten Epic Plays at a Breakneck Pace! It was, perhaps, the most educational play I have ever created, because it made sense of English history in a way that I never understood before. And while I was making sense of it for myself, I was also illuminating it for dozens, or even hundreds of people, every time I performed it.

Fast forward to June of 2014: I was a late addition to the line-up at the American Association of Community Theatres International Festival in Venice, Florida, which hosted amazing acts from all around the world. But when the group from Togo (a country in West Africa) couldn’t afford their plane tickets, the festival turned to me to fill their slot in the schedule. (Four years prior, the group from Zimbabwe couldn’t get their passports together, and I’d been a last-minute recruit then, too.)

This time, rather than Molière, I was presenting Shakespeare’s Histories.

At this festival, there was a group of international adjudicators who would attend and respond to the plays. They weren’t going to be responding to my play, since I was technically, a professional theatre, but one of the adjudicators (a Danish fellow) came to see my show anyway and, visiting with me in the lobby afterwards, was absolutely effusive in his response. He’d loved it. But…

“What I’d really love to see is for you to really focus on just one play, and really dive deeply into the psychology of the characters.”

“Oh, well…that’s interesting. What play would you think I should explore?”

“Well, I’m from Denmark…”

I’d done a little work with Hamlet over the years. I wrote extensively about “Oh, that this too, too solid flesh…” in my textbook, “Acting at the Speed of Life.” It’s the centerpiece of the acting workshop that I present, and I had memorized “To be or not to be…” for Lot o’ Shakespeare, but I had always seen that role as somewhere beyond my reach, especially now that I was probably twice Hamlet’s age.

But once again, here was somebody who envisioned me in the role, and not just in the role, but presenting the entire play!

I started memorizing.

I began with the six major soliloquies. (There’s a great TV series, called Slings and Arrows, in which the director tells the actor playing Hamlet, “You nail those, everybody goes home happy.”) So I began to memorize them. Since a soliloquy features the character alone onstage, by starting with the soliloquies I was getting an unfiltered view of who Hamlet is.

Hamlet spends most of his time playacting: pretending to be crazy, pretending not to know his father has been murdered, pretending not to love Ophelia. If I was going to get inside his head, I needed to see who he was without the filter of pretense. Once I understood that, I could then begin to string together the narrative, figuring out which speeches were essential for telling the story, and what parts of the action I would need to go quickly past with, say, a snarky comment or a quick overview.

With those pieces now in place, I began to memorize the other famous speeches: “What a piece of work is a man,” “Speak the speech, I pray you,” “There’s a special providence in the fall of a sparrow,” all the stuff that was too famous and too important to our cultural understanding to leave out of the mix.

From there, it was on to forging the narrative for each act. The goal was to establish all the factual, contextual information that the audience needed to be able to appreciate these amazing speeches in the moment that they arise, and to eliminate the rest.

That whole eliminating thing? Not easy. I had to get it all down to a single hour, which meant that each of the five acts had to come in at an average of 12 minutes. I chipped away and chipped away, all the while holding a stopwatch to my recitation. The biggest challenge: Act III. It just didn’t want to clock in at less than 18 minutes! Act III is the heart of the play: It leads off with the greatest soliloquy of all time: “To be or not to be…” followed by Hamlet’s attack on Ophelia: “Get thee to a nunnery.” And then, the “Advice to the players.” (“Speak the speech, I pray you…”) I could NOT leave that out! After that, Hamlet needs the play-within-the-play, to reveal the King’s guilt, followed by yet another great soliloquy: “Tis now the very witching time of night,” followed by the crisis of the play: In the moment of greatest opportunity, Hamlet chooses NOT to kill the king! Why? Because the king is praying, and Hamlet, in a moment of hubris, wants to ensure that the king goes to Hell. Moments thereafter, Hamlet kills Polonius, and confronts his mother, Gertrude, for slutting it up with his Uncle Claudius. Everything hinges on Act III!

And so, I sliced away at everything else, racing the lines at, of course, breakneck pace, until one day, I looked at the stopwatch and discovered that the play had checked in at 59 minutes and some odd seconds.

I had my play, and it was really unlike anything I’d ever done before. For those who have seen Lot o’ Shakespeare, it’s kind of like taking one of my introductions/performances of a single Shakespeare monologue, and extending that for an entire hour… a relentless, furious hour of one speech after another, raging fury followed by tender heartbreak, followed by snarky explanation, followed by teetering climax—and repeat.

I opened this show less than a year ago, and it’s quickly turned into my favorite thing to do. I get to be the greatest character in the greatest play of all time, and I get to make sense of that character and that play in a way that will open the door to each audience member who thought that they’d never be able to understand why Hamlet, and why Shakespeare, makes it all happen that way.

The great misunderstanding about Hamlet, is that he’s some indecisive guy who mopes around, unwilling to take action. Hamlet is constantly, furiously, roaringly in action, throughout this play: strategizing, seeking, finding, testing, realizing, chasing—and in one crucial moment, hesitating. And it is that moment of hesitation that sets Hamlet, the character AND the play, on the path to the famous tragic conclusion.

I love being the one who gives access to everybody, finally being able to “get” that.

Breakneck Hamlet will be performed at Fresno Soap Co., 1470 N Van Ness Ave, Fresno, CA 93728. Tickets are $10.

Performance Dates & Times:

Thursday, March 10 2016 8:00 p.m. — 9:00 p.m.
Friday, March 11 2016 6:30 p.m. — 7:30 p.m.
Friday, March 11 2016 9:30 p.m. — 10:30 p.m.
Saturday, March 12 2016 2:00 p.m. — 3:00 p.m.
Saturday, March 12 2016 5:00 p.m. — 6:00 p.m.

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