Editors' pick

Hamlet: The Bad-Ass Quarto

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Editorial Review

PREVIEW: Bootlegging the Bard and winging it
By Stephanie Merry
Friday, August 3, 2012

Theater companies typically plan for months of rehearsals to perfect lines, entrances, exits, sword fights, choreography, sound design, lighting and countless other elements before opening night.

Taffety Punk Theatre Company members embrace a slightly abridged timetable: one day.

For the troupe’s annual Bootleg Shakespeare production, actors will show up for their first run-through at 10 a.m. Monday for a 7 p.m. performance. As if the process isn’t un­or­tho­dox enough, this year’s play is “Hamlet: The Bad-ass Quarto,” the seldom performed first published draft -- and it is a rough draft, stripped entirely of the Bard’s signature literary flourishes -- of the oft-produced tragedy. (The new title is courtesy of Taffety Punk.)

An on-the-fly staging of a work in progress sounds like a risky proposition, and yet, if past years are any indication, theatergoers may start lining up as early as 3 p.m. to secure a seat. The packed house might be explained by the ticket price (free) or the potential for disaster (high), but there’s also something in the Folger Theatre air on Bootleg nights that’s harder to put a finger on.

“It’s partly the audience being able to hear the story in an electric, energized room,” explains company member Kimberly Gilbert, who has acted in every Bootleg show and takes on the role of Ophelia this year. “Because what we’re throwing out there is pure adrenaline and fear.”

Actors get the script about two months before the big day and can call for lines during the show. That means rehearsal is less about delivery than macro issues, such as safely making entrances and exits -- ensuring, as artistic director Marcus Kyd puts it, “no one gets killed onstage,” unless, of course, the script calls for it.

“We’ll just say, ‘You’ve got this speech, right?’ ” says Kyd, who plays Hamlet this year. “Okay, go. You come in here and leave there. Next.”

This might be an actor’s nightmare. Perhaps that’s why it was so difficult to recruit performers in 2007 for the inaugural show, “Cymbeline.”

“Getting people to agree to memorize the lines and have six hours of rehearsal and just do the show whether it was ready or not was really like pulling teeth,” Kyd says. “But after the first one, they called me all year, like, ‘When’s the next one?’ ”

Gilbert compares the experience to giving birth or getting a tattoo. The process might be terrifying and painful, but the outcome tends to be blindingly exciting, thanks in part to the magic of adrenaline.

The mood is “like high octane energy,” says Joel David Santner, who has acted in past Bootleg shows and directs this year’s installment. “You kind of think it can’t get any more energetic, until an audience comes in and then it bumps up again.”

Remarkably, the three actors can’t recall a performance that entirely derailed, although each production has provided memorable anecdotes. There was the year the police arrived after an altercation in the audience, and another time when an actor crowd-surfed, catching a ride from the back of the house to the stage. During “Cymbeline,” a headless dummy disappeared and Gilbert had to give a heart-wrenching monologue to a pile of clothes that looked “like a bag of garbage,” according to Kyd.

This year’s memorable moments remain to be seen or heard, although one could come via a collective gasp from the audience when Hamlet says, “To be, or not to be,” followed unexpectedly by “aye there’s the point.” That line is one of the many incongruities between the quarto and folio versions.

“I think reading it, it’s not superior, but acting it will be a new experience of ‘Hamlet’ that people rarely get to hear,” Gilbert says of the play’s less lyrical early version. “The story for me is much more heartbreaking. I feel more when there’s less poetry, when people just say the things that they say. I feel sometimes poetry is a blanket that you can hide behind.”

For example, while the folio version sees Hamlet telling Ophelia, “I loved you not,” which could be read various ways, the first draft is more to the point.

“In this one, he says, ‘I never loved you,’ and that is a different thing to hear,” Gilbert says.

It could be said that both the first quarto and the Bootleg Shakespeare approach are especially visceral experiences. When the writing is immediate and the acting instinctive, the play’s the thing.