Can death be funny? Tough question. Maybe, to a point? Let’s ask an easier question. Can William Shakespeare’s work be funny? For the cast and crew of Stage Blood, the most recent show from the student-run theater company, the answer is a resounding yes. Shakespeare’s pieces can be funny, both intentionally and inadvertently. And these points of humor can spring from the text, as well as from the performances. As student director Elena Faverio ’15 said, “Shakespeare is hilarious!”
Some of that hilarity is generated from Shakespeare’s flirtation with the “melodramatic and the self-indulgent.” Faverio points to the following line from Hamlet, a truly death obsessed play, as an example, “Oh that this too solid flesh would melt, thaw and resolve itself into a dew.’ What?” My personal favorite line from Hamlet is from Act 1, Scene 5. It’s a very raw and powerful moment between Hamlet and the ghost of his dead, betrayed father. The ghost is supposed to be this horrific, awe-inspiring manifestation of unnatural death (murder most foul), but sometimes he says the most ridiculous things. For example, when he’s trying to impress upon Hamlet the fearsomeness of his tale he exclaims that it’s such a terrifying story that it could cause “each particular hair to stand on end like quills upon the fearful porcupine.”
That said, Shakespeare is also intentionally very funny. For example, in Act 3, Scene 2 Hamlet is watching a play with his fiancée Ophelia, and he just rattles off joke after joke to exploit the sexual tension and innuendo of the situation. Hamlet is filled with wordplay and puns, and even self deprecating humor. In Act 5, Scene 1 the gravedigger explains that mad Hamlet was sent to England because “’twill not be seen in him there. There the men are as mad as he.”
Stage Blood, a play that takes place during a couple of days in the life of a “third rate theater company” follows a dysfunctional family of actors as they attempt to prepare for what is obviously going to be a disastrous opening night of Hamlet. As the rehearsals draw closer to opening night, the events in the “real life” of the theater company begin, hilariously, to mirror the events in Hamlet. A murder is perpetrated and it is up to the company managers’ courageous, slightly clueless son to catch the murderer. But Stage Blood is not meant to tear down Shakespeare, or to butcher his verse. It’s not meant to mock – it’s a play with heart and genuine fondness for all of its characters, for Shakespeare’s characters and for Shakespeare himself. Faverio points this out, saying “It’s a love letter to Hamlet, Shakespeare, actors and theater.” This play casts Shakespeare in a very fond light: the eccentric and lovable uncle that you see at Thanksgiving, who will, in the middle of making fantastically weird mashed potato sculptures, say something incredibly beautiful and insightful. Stage Blood demonstrates this love, of course with its plot structure, but also in its wordplay and physical comedy, both very Shakespearan theater elements. The director points to the physical comedy in particular as something that the actors embraced whole-heartedly and with great success. Faverio credits the actors with many of the physical routines, “A lot of the physical comedy was our particular brand of madness … The fight scene between Carl and Edmund (in which both characters struggle fiercely with their pants around their ankles), the ghost chase at the end-those were added on … It was so much about my actors – letting them find their own little jokes – and they were all brilliant at it,” she said. Faverio mentioned specifically, “watching the second-to-last run before the opening and instead of pulling a newspaper out of his pocket, Connor Lawhorn ’16 (Stone/Gilbert) pulled out a fish. Faverio points out the difficulty involved in comedic excellence, saying, “People don’t realize how much discipline is required to do comedy – finding rhythm, finding specificity, keeping it clean and staying focused.” In this production of Stage Blood, discipline and excellence were evident from start to finish, in the wonderful ensemble cast, the brilliant direction and the creative work behind the scenes, making the stage beautiful and efficient. It takes a lot of courage and talent to take on a play as embedded in the collective consciousness as Hamlet is, and the students in this production had both qualities in spades.
So, Shakespeare is funny. Hamlet is funny. Stage Blood is definitely funny. Can death be funny? I don’t know – the brutal fact of death, the absence of self seems pretty grim to me. But perhaps that is why plays like Hamlet and Stage Blood are so vital. The wisecracking gravedigger in Hamlet asks “What is he that builds stronger than either the mason, the shipwright or the carpenter?” And he answers (between shovels of grave dirt) “A grave maker, the houses he makes last till doomsday.” It’s disturbing, but it’s also an amusing moment – a respite in an otherwise intensely morbid play. We probably need those jokes, we need to be able to laugh at the intractability of death – its terrifying, perfect resolution. Laughter lends us the strength to peer into this void and then turn around and write the 12-page paper, or eat breakfast or perform any of the other billion mundane, “meaningless” but actually kind of wonderful tasks that make up a life.
Basically, Stage Blood is a gift, Hamlet is a gift and laughing is good for you. Go see Hamlet next month! Especially if you saw Stage Blood. “I love Shakespeare possibly more than anyone else on this earth and comedy for me is a celebration,” Faverio said. “If someone goes to see real Hamlet and at some point during the show they remember a moment from Stage Blood and giggle, I think we’ve done our job.”