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Stage Blood

Spotlighters Theater playfully wrestles with Charles Ludlam's riff on Hamlet

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Michael Zemarel (left) tsk-tsks Jeff Coleman's skullduggery.

Stage Blood

By Charles Ludlam

Through Dec. 19 at the Audrey Herman Spotlighters Theatre

Enter the onion: Fare fruit whose briny ridges lay just so and doth be peeled away/ Draw false tears and liar of me make. Or something—an onion isn’t a fruit, but the meter sounds like Shakespeare, so it’s close. And close enough is good enough for Stage Blood, a production written by Ridiculous Theatrical Company founder Charles Ludlam and staged with care at the Spotlighters Theatre. Adaptations of any of Shakespeare’s works—in this case, Hamlet—are hardly rare and rarely original, but Stage Blood and Spotlighters’ earnest cast offer enough surprises to make for an afternoon of mostly enjoyable theater.

The production uses a cast of six and a tiny stage to tell the story of Hamlet, and also to tell the story of a cast telling the story of Hamlet. We’re introduced to Carlton Stone Sr. (Frank Vince), a drunk of a washed-up actor whose career has seen him play Hamlet in endless iterations. He sobs and sucks on his vodka, half sprawled in a costume trunk on the floor, while his son, Carlton “Carl” Stone Jr. (Michael Zemarel), tries to draw him out of his stupor and motivate him to take on tonight’s performance. Introductions to the rest of the cast follow: Carlton’s wife Helga (Janise Whelan), stage manager Jim Jenkins (Jeffrey Coleman), and actor Edmund Dundreary (Richard Peck). They’re all various levels of distraught over the afternoon’s loss of Ophelia—the actress quit due to Carlton’s over-the-top antics—and search for a solution in stumbly, bumbly manner. Shall they have a Hamlet without an Ophelia? Shall Stone double-cast himself as both Hamlet and his lover? Or shall they simply not stage the production? Baltimore’s not that great a theater city, anyway, says Carlton from his trunk of a bed.

Young actress Elfie Fey (April Rejman) conveniently enters and offers her services. She knows Ophelia’s role line for line, despite never having been in a production, and Carlton hires her on the spot. Blood is off and rolling, and its cast-within-a-cast must put together a Hamlet fit for viewing by the end of the evening.

And herein begin the layers. Blood’s cast alternately tells its own story—the story of a less-than-professional cast trying to stage one of the greats—and performs Hamlet, through rehearsal scenes of the original Shakespeare. It’s essentially a combination of an original and a modern adaptation, and though it works somewhat effectively, it adds yet another veil of confusion to an already endlessly complicated plot. The script’s transitions between the two are, if not seamless, well navigated, and most of the players handle the dual styles with grace.

In fact, it is the players who define this show, in both its strengths and its occasional weaknesses. Zemarel is a convincing leading man, and it’s during his onstage moments that you may come closest to full theatrical immersion. Vince, somewhat a guilty pleasure, is entertaining as a bombastic drunk, and he pulls a slick switch to his dual role as Gilbert Fey, Carlton’s supposed estranged brother. Rejman’s Ophelia is lovely but somehow her skill doesn’t translate to her role as Elfie. And Coleman, as an awkward Jenkins, speaks too quickly and unclearly, which makes his Shakespeare lines especially difficult to understand. They all reel along in a runaway unraveling plot, whose final tie-up is a bit trite for the two hours of effort leading up to it.

Just as Elfie too suddenly showed up to play Ophelia, Carl too suddenly falls for her during an impromptu rehearsal scene. Elfie, starstruck at being backstage with “real” actors, asks him to impart his theater knowledge. What, exactly, is blocking? How do you truly become your character? And how, most importantly, does an actor cry real tears? Carl hands her an onion and a handkerchief, and tells her to keep both handy, dabbing her eyes with the onion to augment a fake emotional performance. She’s disheartened by the cheap trick, and later returns it to Carl, thankful for the advice but still searching for something deeper from the art she loves so much.

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