Eugene Weekly : Theater : 5.15.08

A Gutsy Hamlet
Or Not to Be turns the horror inside out

God, that Will Shakespeare was hilarious, wasn’t he? Especially around death. The final scene of Hamlet? Side-splitting!

Bad puns aside … actually, bad puns not aside: John Schmor’s adaptation Or Not to Be, a collaboration between the UO theater department and the Lord Leebrick Theatre, distills both Hamlet‘s humor and the play’s strong stench of the graveyard into a first-generation hybrid that needs tweaking but provides some spectacular moments.

Gertrude (Lyn Burg) looks on as Hamlet (Patrick O’Driscoll) deals with Claudius (Kato Bass)

The play’s zombie movie setup — a claustrophobic morgue in a high-tech Elsinore, with the old king’s body lying on a gurney — brings surprising twists to the well-worn plot. In this “mistreatment,” Schmor grabs the protracted and interpretation-bound script by its pallid Freudian throat and, with a postmodern cut-and-paste job, breathes new death into it. The contemporary setting leaps out early on when “young terrorists” (instead of “young Fortinbras”) threaten the order of the state. Except the true threat comes from inside, of course.

What could be a better representation of rot, decay, the thousand unnatural shocks that flesh is heir to in our time, than the zombie? Though disaster begins slowly, the undead virus spreads as the state crumbles (or vice versa). Bloody zombie fights, with their exaggeration and camp, fit brilliantly into this 90-minute speed tragedy.

I’m trying to figure out my favorite image without giving too much away. Was it Michael Walker as holy man Polonius, his nasal drone lending an additional dollop of humor to his advice? Queen Gertrude (Lyn Burg) in robe and slippers, carrying a big soft pillow into the morgue? Drunk Claudius (Kato Buss) staggering around, his natty uniform disheveled? Or Old Hamlet, aka the Zombie King (Michael P. Watkins), joining Polonius in a most colorful dinner party? And speaking of the skilled Watkins, the play was rarely so alive as when he took the stage (and the advantage).

Yet Watkins’ sly feints and the play’s zombie-induced incarnadine splashes cause a problem: High adrenaline nightmare sequences crash hard into Hamlet (Patrick O’Driscoll)’s meditative soliloquies. Young O’Driscoll doesn’t always connect with the essence of his central role. As Hamlet remains stuck in a holding pattern, the audience awaits more zombie trauma. (After all, in the first few scenes, one man loses his life, and another staggers away, badly bitten.) For his part, O’Driscoll seems infected by that expectation of faster scenes and rushes some of the contemplative lines.

Another problem emerges from Schmor’s several goals. Yes, one can accomplish two or three tasks in adapting Shakespeare, but how should viewers handle the clash between hyperactive zombie moments and a few lightly Brechtian attempts to subvert the play? Hm.

Does Schmor want us to suspend disbelief and relax into the logic of zombie Elsinore, knowing that an epic battle looms? Or should we remain alert and investigate our baggage-ridden views of Hamlet, the sensitive soul whose revenge takes forever?

In terms of tradition, the image of billowy-gowned Ophelia, the flower of womanhood who’s driven mad by her lover’s murder of her father, takes the most hits. Here, Ophelia (Cassidy Slaughter-Mason) enters as a competent coroner, Scully-like in her lab clothes and clever enough to pass vital information (and access) to Hamlet and Horatio.

But Schmor’s Ophelia displays extratextual knowledge and often demands to get “out of here.” For “here,” read “this patriarchally constructed space in which the march towards death feels inevitable.” The modern Ophelia would rather run from the grinding sound of conflict than suffer through her written fate.

That grinding sound, where zombie teeth mash and chew entrails? Hugely entertaining. Unless you’re a zombie-hater or a Shakespeare purist (and really, who would try to be a “purist” about such a flexible body of work?), Or Not to Be will exercise both your diaphragm and your brain. Plus, it provides a fitting conclusion to the Leebrick’s season, which began with the brutally funny Pillowman and ends with Schmor’s much warmer, much bloodier rewrite of a tragic tale.   

Or Not to Be runs through June 1 at the Lord Leebrick Theatre. Tix at or 465-1506.