The Skinhead Hamlet and Stand Up Absurdity or Hell With a Side of Pudding

Wing & Groove Theatre

By Nick Green

It’s no coincidence that both the one-acts in Wing & Groove’s new late-night production clock in at almost the same running time: 23 minutes, more or less the length of a half-hour sitcom without the commercials. Not only is television–and its emphasis on instant gratification and rapid-fire entertainment–an undeniable influence on both plays but the faint, familiar glow of the television set visually links them. In Qui Nguyen’s Stand Up Absurdity or Hell With a Side of Pudding the characters rarely turn their attention from the television set, and in the unattributed Skinhead Hamlet the protagonist pulls out a portable TV every time the violence around him becomes unbearable. In both scripts, television represents both a means of escape and an anchor to reality.

A quick survey of the audience at the show I attended revealed most of the members to be between the ages of 20 and 30, a generation weaned on and nurtured by the idiot box. And while the multiple–and often arcane–allusions to Ionesco and other absurdist playwrights in Stand Up Absurdity left many scratching their heads, few failed to recognize and giggle at the script’s television references. The same went for The Skinhead Hamlet, which seemed to elicit a greater response for its garish 1970s-era skinhead fashions and blaring punk rock than for its parallels with Shakespeare’s original. Theater can be a bitter pill for some; if a spoonful of sugar is what it takes, so be it.

“I like this,” mutters Vlad, one of the three television watchers in Stand Up Absurdity, “because it is about nothing.” He’s debating the merits of Seinfeld with his partner in crime Esther; taken out of context, though, his comment offers a perfect summation of Nguyen’s script. Over the course of the one-act the pair barely budge from their seats, moving only to fetch a bowl of pudding from an offstage kitchen or ward off the advances of Master–an enigmatic figure who occasionally emerges from a trash can center stage to seduce them. Like the characters in Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, these three wait impatiently for divine intervention–except, in the case of Stand Up Absurdity, it’s an episode of Saved by the Bell that never materializes.

Not only are the protagonists modeled on Vladimir and Estragon in Godot, their names have been reduced to Vlad and Esther, in keeping with Beckett’s minimalist approach. The trash can is borrowed from Beckett’s Endgame; the chairs that crowd the back recall Ionesco’s The Chairs. In both tone and theme, Nguyen’s script echoes the frustrations of the wayward souls of Godot and Sartre’s No Exit. Most of these references whiz by at such a feverish rate that it’s easy to miss them. Blink, and the moment is gone. Of course, Nguyen doesn’t seem to anticipate that the audience will care much about anything theatrical; he’d rather the audience get lost in his comfortably numb riffs on bad 80s sitcoms.

Amy Tourne’s fast-paced staging is absolutely airtight. And the cast is uniformly excellent, paying attention to small details and offering incredibly nuanced, expressive performances. Allen Hope Sermonia’s Vlad is full of dull-witted hope, and Jessica Luukkonen’s Esther is full of equally dull-witted cynicism. Autumn Lakosky plays Master with both menace and fragility. Stand Up Absurdity isn’t the “anti-literary devaluation” of classic works that the graffiti on Master’s trash can would lead the audience to believe. It’s something far more potent: a satire of the absolute ignorance and complacency that a medium like television breeds.

Television plays a smaller role in The Skinhead Hamlet, in part because most of the action takes place on street corners and sidewalks. But this radical, completely unorthodox interpretation of the Bard’s best-known, most sacrosanct play nonetheless offers endless commentary on the reduced expectations of the television age. In some respects The Skinhead Hamlet gives the masses exactly what they’ve been clamoring for: an easily digestible fast-food-style adaptation that boils the classic down to its absolute essence. By eviscerating and shredding Hamlet into 12 fast and furious scenes, the anonymous Skinhead Hamlet playwright has cut out all the fat and gristle–and much of the meat–from Shakespeare’s text.

Still, this Hamlet isn’t that easy to swallow. From the jarring guerrilla tactics of the opening montage (staged beautifully by director Stephanie McCanles) to the bloody climax, The Skinhead Hamlet assaults our senses at every turn. Jagged bursts of punk rock and white noise punctuate every scene. And in the play’s 23 minutes those rowdy skinheads manage to perform numerous acts of hooliganism: swilling Guinness, spitting, cursing, and beating one another to a pulp. Even the language has been altered to convey the violence of the skinhead subculture. Simply substituting the word “fuck” in some form for other expressions transforms the play’s most memorable speeches into sinister threats: “To fuck or be fucked…,” “Fuck off to a nunnery!” and so on.

But perhaps what’s most alarming about The Skinhead Hamlet is that, despite all the drastic cuts and alterations, it’s actually a fairly reverent adaptation–the nihilism of 1970s Britain offers a perfect parallel to the social upheaval of Hamlet’s Denmark. The play is also an absolutely refreshing tonic to stolid, long-winded, more faithful productions. Of course, purists won’t like Stand Up Absurdity or The Skinhead Hamlet one bit. But for everyone else these one-acts are a reminder of what’s best about theater: its ability to turn our expectations inside out and upside down.