Review: Young directors deliver thought-provoking Black Box Project at KU

Everything old is new again seems to be the theme of this year’s Black Box Directing Project at KU’s University Theatre. Student directors brought fresh visions to Anton Chekhov’s “The Boor” and the biggest classic of them all, Shakespeare’s “Hamlet.”

“The Boor,” under the direction of senior theater major Brian Buntin, tells the story of a grief-stricken widow, Helena (Abby Hadel), and her long-suffering servant, Luka (Sophia Hail). Helena’s husband died seven months ago, and, despite his having been a philanderer and cruel to her in life, she is determined to remain completely devoted to him in death, much to Luka’s chagrin.

Her plan is interrupted when Grigori Smirnov (Josuha A. Greene) arrives, demanding she pay one of her husband’s debts. He needs the money today because of his own financial problems, but she can’t get it for two days. The two begin quarreling, and hilarity ensues as Chekhov makes his point about the absurdity of love and male-female relations.

Hadel is hilarious as the overdramatic Helena. She is a master of facial comedy, contorting her expression into one sidesplitting reaction to Greene and Hail after another. In fact, if Buntin’s direction has a flaw, it is that he often puts the Hadel and Greene on opposite sides of the stage, so that one has to choose whether to watch him deliver his lines or watch her react to them. It’s a very small blemish on the production, but some of the comedy is missed by not being able to see everything Hadel does when she doesn’t have lines.

Hail is equally funny as the put-upon Luka. Both Helena and Grigori order him about without any consideration to practicality or his feelings, and Hail perfectly captures the attitude of an older man, who begrudgingly accepts an unfortunate lot in life. She also has a strong command of physical comedy, eliciting uproarious laughter from the audience during a sequence when Luka appears to be having a heart attack and neither Helena nor Grigori notice, so consumed are they in their argument.

Despite his desire to present Chekhov’s comedy classically, Buntin allows himself to explore fresh territory by casting a woman in the role of Luka. Hail wears a wig, mustache and tuxedo, but she’s clearly female. Thus, even in Buntin’s straight presentation of “The Boor,” we get something new.

After a brief intermission, an ensemble cast of six actors (Jake Dutton, Kendra J. Hacker, Alena Ivanov, Justin Petty, Zechariah Williams and Brianna Woods) takes on three short revisions of “Hamlet,” each directed by a Ph.D. student in KU’s theater department.

First up is Tom Stoppard’s “The 15-Minute Hamlet” directed by Danny Devlin. As the troupe tells us, “Hamlet” is the longest play in the English language, taking, on average, five and a half hours to perform. The role of Hamlet is also the longest part, with more lines than any other role in an English-language play.

Stoppard boils it all down to a 15-minute synopsis, which is played for comedy with panache and gusto by the sextet, many of them playing multiple roles. Stoppard’s play takes all its lines from the original, essentially condensing it down to a Cliff’s Notes version. Devlin adds an introduction wherein the cast interacts with the audience, explains what they’re going to do, and even gives an audience member a stopwatch to time their performance. It works to good comic effect, made all the funnier by what is cut out and glossed over.

The second play is “The Dick and Jane Hamlet” by Larry Siegel. Directed by Jeanne Tiehen, this version spoofs children’s programming. Its title references early reading primers from the '60s and '70s, but, in addition to lampooning those banal teaching tools, it also takes shots at the more modern, sugary, toddler programming on daytime television. The cast assumes the roles of actors on a “story time” type of TV show with lots of over-the-top enthusiasm.

Today’s episode of the show features “Hamlet,” and the action goes from silly (they don’t really seem to be telling “Hamlet”) to ridiculous when everyone starts dying. It’s another fine bit of comedy made more fun by the same actors from the Stoppard play getting different roles in this one.

But it is the dark, surreal “Hamletmachine” directed by Scott Knowles that really puts the whole evening into perspective. Heiner Müller’s postmodern attack on contemporary culture and traditional gender roles as expressed by Hamlet and Ophelia plays like the odder moments of a David Lynch film.

The actors throw books, destroy the set, tear off their Shakespearean costuming, and generally commit mayhem while Hamlet rages that he no longer wants to act as he’s supposed to or even be a man. Meanwhile, Ophelia rejects the classic female role of mother and nurturer. In its strange way, it both embraces the essential conflicts of these characters while completely exploding them.

And perhaps that’s the point of this year’s project. Buntin embraces classic theater with a straight portrayal of “The Boor” but bends the gender roles a shade by casting a woman in a man’s part. Devlin lampoons the greatest play in the language by comically reducing it to a frenetic 15-minute short. Tiehen uses “Hamlet” to mock what we’re teaching our children and vice versa. And then Knowles blows the whole thing up with an experimental piece that borders on violent.

It’s thought-provoking theater, and, even if it doesn’t always make sense, it has young actors and directors pushing limits and finding something new, something fresh, in something very familiar.

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