More words have been written about William Shakespeare's tragedy Hamletthan probably any piece of literature in history other than the Bible. It's been the subject of countless dramatic treatments, at least nine film versions and Lord knows how many pop-culture references.
But a Hamlet produced with all puppets? That might be a first. And it's happening at the Maverick Theater:Hamlet Has No Legs is a 75-minute production that was first staged last year at the Empire Theatre in Santa Ana by the All Puppet Players. We caught up with head puppetmaster Shaun McNamara to pick his brain about the project.
OC Weekly (Joel Beers): Shakespeare--love him or hate him?
Shaun MacNamera: I hate [reading] Shakespeare. I find nothing intriguing or entertaining within his text, and I think his comedies are dull and almost beg for laughter by snobbish people who know what the hell is going on. In high school, my drama teacher begged me to read Hamlet, and I continually refused. So one day, she sat me down, and while the other kids were doing an in-class project, she made me watch the [Kenneth] Branagh version of Hamlet. I loved it. But I wasn't about to tell her that. She and I stayed close, even after I graduated. In fact, Mrs. Morrell [at the time] was the reason I wanted to be an actor in the first place. There was only one other teacher that was that influential in my upbringing, and it just happened to be Mr. McCarty, my puppetry teacher who taught me in fifth grade. Once both of them entered my brain, it literally became a no-brainer: Hamlet with puppets. I mostly do it now just to make my high-school drama teacher mad.
Is this is a big goof on Hamlet, or do you think the essence of the original piece is still captured?
Of course it's a goof. It can't not be. But we have watched audiences laugh with us for an hour and walk out with tears in their eyes. If we can do Shakespeare well as actors, the puppets will only enhance our performance. If we can't do it well, the puppets sure are funny to look at. It's a tightrope that we walk every night, and so far, not only have we found the balance, but I think we have also surprised a lot of people by how genuine some foam and fur can be.
How many puppets are in the production, and how many humans manipulate them?
There are more than 30 puppets in the play, performed by eight performers. They range from kids' hand puppets, for which you use your middle finger to control the head, to 28-inch puppets like Hamlet, with blinking lights and a pair of hand gloves that are controlled by two puppeteers. In fifth grade, I was in an after-school program run by Mr. McCarty in Arizona in which we learned how to build, manipulate, write for and perform with puppets. After the fifth grade, the only contact I had with puppets was watching them on TV or in the movies. When I came to California, I had the good fortune to be the voice and puppeteer for Crush at Disney's California Adventure. At Universal Studios, I am the voice and puppeteer for Donkey from the [Shrek] movies. Both are much bigger and more expensive versions of what you'll see in Hamlet.
Puppetry has a long, rich background, but it's mostly relegated to kids' entertainment these days. Do you think puppetry is a legitimate form of artistic expression?
I think there are people who say that puppets are overdone and that puppetry is an art that should have died a long time ago. The problem these people have is they take the stage too seriously. Puppets have been around and helping us tell stories for hundreds of years. It's a lasting artistic expression, one I don't think the Jim Henson Company (as much as I love it) should have the market cornered on. The people who hate puppets are in for a big buzzkill, too, because kids like me who grew up in the 1980s, when the Muppet Show, Labyrinth and The Dark Crystal were released, are still interested in puppets. There's just no outlet to perform with them. That's why I created the All Puppet Players. I want to take serious theater and flip it on its axis. I want to make theater entertaining again while still keeping its dramatic core. I want people to not only be interested in the spectacle of the puppets performing serious works, but also get wrapped up in these stories that are still important and still have value but have been watered down by contemporary versions and star-power remakes that do little to improve the very story they claim to be honoring. Right now, I am getting people to see Hamlet. I'm getting kids to come see our show, and adults and everyone I have talked to after the show have said, "I think I want to read it again." Puppets did that. . . . That's pretty good, don't you think?
For a review of Hamlet Has No Legs, check out James Scarborough's post here.
Maverick Theater, 110 E. Walnut Ave., Fullerton, (714) 526-7070; www.mavericktheater.com. Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 4 p.m. Through Feb. 12. See website for ticket info.