‘Hamlet’ with Marionettes on an Antique Carousel

Puppet Hamlet on a Carousel Deborah Beshaw as Gertrude, Queen of Denmark; Nat Cassidy as Hamlet. Puppets of Ophelia and Hamlet.
Puppet Hamlet on a Carousel Deborah Beshaw as Gertrude, Queen of Denmark; Nat Cassidy as Hamlet. Puppets of Ophelia and Hamlet. Photo by Jonathan Slaff.

To share its 1997-2002 hit with a larger audience, Czechoslovak-American Marionette Theater will revive its distinctive production of “Hamlet, Prince of Denmark,” directed by Vit Horejs and Pavel Dobrusky, from November 1 to 25, 2007 on Jane’s Carousel, 56 Water Street, Brooklyn. In its debut year, the production earned accolades at The Vineyard 26 Theatre and Karagoz International Festival in Bursa, Turkey. It was revived in 2002 at Jan Hus Playhouse, 351 E 74th Street, Manhattan, but it has not since been performed in New York. It features a cast of five actors and scores of marionettes and stages the play’s famous soliloquies as musical songs.

The 1997 jewel box production introduced hundreds of New Yorkers to Czech puppetry, inspired a Time Magazine article and filled the Vineyard’s 26th Street Theatre with audiences of all ages. At the time, Czechoslovak-American Marionette Theater was regarded as a “rising star” theater company; but its ingenuity and conceptual skill were not as widely recognized as they were after its La MaMa production of “Golem” was chosen for the 1998 Jim Henson International Festival of Puppet Theater and “Rusalka, the Little Rivermaid” (1999) filled La MaMa’s large Annex Theater for both its opening run and return engagement.

Jane Walentas, restorer of the carousel, on one of its wooden horses.
Jane Walentas, restorer of the carousel, on one of its wooden horses.

The 2002 revival at the Jan Hus Playhouse was staged on a revolving gazebo. Now the idea is to place the epic on an actual carousel. Jane’s Carousel in DUMBO opened for viewing in October 2006 after nearly 20 years of renovations. The carousel was built in 1922 by the Philadelphia Toboggan Company and purchased for the Brooklyn Bridge Park in 1984 by Jane Walentas and her husband David, who at that time was the designated developer of the park. The carousel is normally open weekends for viewing only, while it awaits final approval to be installed in the park where it can be ridden and enjoyed by children for many generations to come. Among its 48 horses and 2 carriages, there is ample space for the puppet theater production.

This “Hamlet” draws upon Shakespeare’s text, Ur-Hamlet sources and a popular Czech puppet version published in Prague for a toy puppet theatre in its heyday, the 1920s. Director Vit Horejs conceived the production noting how Shakespeare’s tragedy lends itself to a puppet interpretation with its themes of protagonists unable to escape their fate like marionettes manipulated by destiny. His adaptation employs six 42-inch marionettes, twelve 26-inch marionettes, five live actors and 50 toy marionettes in crowd scenes. The concept allows the audience to view the actions of the play through a double-prism as live performers mirror and comment on the actions of the marionettes, and vice-versa. Live action is so mixed in with the puppetry that when Polonius dies (a wooden marionette killed by an old hand drill), the woman puppeteer (Theresa Linnihan) plays a death scene along with that of her stringed alter ego.

48 inch puppets by Jacob Krejci of Hamlet, The Queen and The King.
These are 48inch puppets by Jacob Krejci of Hamlet, The Queen and The King. Because the puppets are so large, there are openings in the chests for puppeteers to place their hands.

The puppets in “Hamlet, Prince of Denmark” include antiques, newer 44-48 inch puppets designed and constructed by master carver Jakub Krejci, and toy puppets by Prague-based Milos Kasal.

The production also has Shakespeare’s eternal soliloquies set to music. At times, the music drives the action and puppet movement is choreographed like a dance. At other times, music is layered over the puppets’ and puppeteers’ action. Incidental music and sound often evoke radio drama and follow the action. Songs are composed by Ben Seessel.

Under Austro-Hungarian, Nazi and Communist domination, Czech puppetry contained pointed political satire by concealing sharp criticism in familiar tales. Since independence, Czech puppet impresarios have experimented with multimedia effects and shattering illusion by having human actors perform opposite their wooden counterparts. Stylistically, Vit Horejs falls in with the prominent modernists of this form. Citing the 1997 production of “Hamlet,” Time Magazine (Emily Mitchell) credited Horejs with “uniting the honored tradition with post-modern sensibilities, giving his mute figures from a bygone era a startling new place in the theater.”

Charley as Hamlet in the 2002 revival, where a miniature carousel was built on the stage.
Charley as Hamlet in the 2002 revival, where a miniature carousel was built on the stage.

The New York Times (Anita Gates) praised the 1997 production’s inventiveness, but saved special praise for the leading man/puppeteer, writing, “Charley Hayward is a strong Hamlet, making his character unlikable but sexy, a sort of William Hurt type with a John Lennon sharpness.” NYU’s Culture Shock (Gabrielle Gilliam) issued a rigorous and insightful dramaturgical analysis, claiming that the play-within-a-play, done with ever-smaller puppets, was probably the truest way to stage the schizophrenic ordeal by which Hamlet brings the King’s guilt to the forefront. The review asserted that as the actor spun the Hamlet puppet while singing the “To be or not to be” speech, it brought attention to the word and image of flying (from the line, “fly not to others we known not of), thus taking the focus of the scene and creating a picture of Hamlet lost in space. This, wrote Ms. Gilliam, is “proof that it does not take a Laurence Olivier or a Mel Gibson to express the beauty of Shakespeare’s poetry.”

Josh Adler will alternate with Nat Cassidy as Hamlet in this production.
Josh Adler will alternate with Nat Cassidy (seen in first photo, above) as Hamlet in this production.

The play is directed by Vit Horejs and Pavel Dobrusky. Josh Adler and Nat Cassidy will alternate as Hamlet, in the role originated by Charley Hayward. The other performers are Deborah Beshaw, Vit Horejs and Theresa Linnihan. Costumes are by Magdalena Vavakova and Theresa Linnihan. The set is the carousel. Additional set and lighting design are by Pavel Dobrusky.

Performances are November 1-25 at Jane’s Carousel, 56 Water Street, Brooklyn (DUMBO – Located next to St. Anne’s Warehouse). The performance schedule is Thursdays through Saturdays at 7:30 plus matinees at 2:00 pm Saturdays and Sundays. Tickets to preview performances November 1 to 4 are $15/$10 kids (under 12) and seniors. From November 8 to 25, tickets are $19/$12 kids (under 12) and seniors. The box office is SmartTix (212) 868-4444 and www.smarttix.com.

For those unfamiliar with DUMBO, the subway directions are: F to York Street, A/C to High Street, 2/3 to Clark Street.

This show is recommended for audiences aged 8 to 108.

Jonathan Slaff
Jonathan Slaff writes on cultural events from the brainy, the edgy and the good. He helps us keep ahead of the curve in the world of the arts and culture.