The Hamlet Dog and Pony Show: Mad Cat Theatre's Rollicking Circus

Paul Tei, the acclaimed artistic director of Mad Cat Theatre Company, doesn't exactly go to plays to veg out.

"I want to be challenged in a way that makes me question the things I believe," Tei says. "I don't need to be talked down to. I don't need to be told what I already know. I sure as hell don't need to feel good. Entertain me while stimulating me."

That impulse is exactly what makes Mad Cat's productions stand out. In addition to a signature tripping-balls surrealism, its plays offer a commentary on social mores, art, history, and politics, without being overly specific. Mad Cat's works are harrowingly ambiguous yet wildly amusing, packed with musical references, humor, and intellectualism.

The Hamlet Dog and Pony Show, which opened last weekend at the Light Box at Goldman Warehouse, throws the proverbial kitchen sink at the audience.

The play, co-written by Tei and Jessica Farr, is a cavernous and dense take on William Shakespeare's Hamlet, mixed with Heiner Müller's postmodern 1977 play The Hamletmachine and blended into a nihilistic cocktail of surrealism and speculative drama. It's a 21st-century deconstruction of the classic tale, and while it often teeters under its own enthusiastic weight, The Hamlet Dog and Pony Show entertains, enlightens, and even confuses, which is exactly what Tei and Farr set out to do.

"We wanted to bring elements of The Hamletmachine. And we wanted to break Hamlet apart — mix it up and spin it out — a lot like what Danger Mouse did with The Grey Album," Tei says of the DJ's mix of the Beatles' The White Album and Jay-Z's The Black Album.

Grey Album-ing Hamlet is a highly ambitious undertaking. But Mad Cat comes close to pulling off a convoluted and modern take on the masterpiece.

In Dog and Pony Show, the Danish castle Elsinore is now the White House. Hamlet (Troy Davidson) is a hip, bearded intellectual. Claudius (Ken Clement) is a conservative president of the United States, and Polonius is a mustached puppet with a Cuban accent who's manipulated and voiced by Claudius. Ophelia (Emilie Paap), with her flashy pink hair, looks like she just jumped out of the film Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. All the while, a female version of Heiner Müller (Farr) struts about on- and offstage in a cabaret costume while directing Hamlet's moves and gradually becoming the voice of the play through lyrical soliloquies spoken in a thick German accent.

The production combines a hodgepodge of musical numbers, such as Gertrude (Carey Brianna Hart) singing Badfinger's 1970 hit "Without You," blended with modern touches, such as Hamlet texting his love letter to Ophelia, and King Hamlet getting murdered at Occupy D.C. Claudius's scheming courtiers, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (Erik Fabregat and Ralph de la Portilla), spy on Hamlet via a Skype hookup, one of the many clever effects. Even most of the Bard's lines are reshaped with a modern twist, such as when Hamlet cries out to Gertrude: "What a world we live in where a dead spouse is as replaceable as a viral video!"

Tei and Mad Cat's message of "theater being a place to stimulate" permeates throughout, such as when Horatio (Theo Reyna) and Laertes (Giordan Diaz), holding bullhorns in front of a crowd on a Miami street, debate the historical impact of Cubans and whites in America. There's also Horatio's soapbox moment when he cries out that "theater is a place to debate, not reiterate." If the play is the thing, Tei's play certainly looks to give everyone the same jolt Claudius feels when Hamlet's acting troupe puts on The Mousetrap (modernized as a Western murder mystery).

At nearly two and a half hours (with a 15-minute intermission), Dog and Pony Show is a tad long. It could do without some of the ham-fisted attempts to squeeze in recent political problems, such as the U.S.'s mounting debt to China and a veiled reference to Marlins manager Ozzie Guillen's "I love Fidel Castro" comments. But the play's dark humor and stylized setting keep things interesting. It's a messy trip, but it's supposed to be that way.

The use of fog machines, a live band, and actor James Samuel Randolph's voice as the disembodied spirit of King Hamlet are stylish and cool. Sean McClelland's simple nightmare-carnival set design against the Light Box's black walls creates a fantastical ambiance.

The entire cast turns in a solid performance. Davidson's ability to play a cool, not-quite-sane, not-quite-crazy Hamlet is impressive. Clement, as Claudius and the puppet, is hilarious. Christopher Kent puts on a virtuoso performance as a supporting actor, portraying with flair and conviction not only a guitar and bass, but also several characters, such as the Gravedigger, the Actor, and Mr. Osric.

"I think that too many times when you go to the theater, people want to tune out," Tei says. "The plays we're doing now are just about trying to blend music and theater and whatever else inspires us, in terms of films we've seen or books we've read or whatever is going on in the political spectrum."

All in all, The Hamlet Dog and Pony Show is a layered psychedelic mind-screw. Though it can be heavy-handed with its themes and its desire to treat Hamlet with disdain, it still makes for a rollicking, circus-like night at the theater.

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Chris Joseph

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