Times Theater Critic

Titles do matter. Who would drive all the way out to Santa Monica to see something called "An Actor Is an Actor Is an Actor"? Who, on the other hand, could resist "Kill Hamlet"?

Same show. The first was its original title. The second is what it's being called for its American tour. It played a one-nighter Saturday at the Powerhouse, and Hamlet showed up just once--to give his advice to the players.

But nobody asked for his money back. An actor in a fix can be just as dramatic as a prince in a pickle. And Justus Neumann, the star of this one-man show from Vienna, showed us that the actor is in a fix from the moment the curtain goes up.

Especially when there isn't any curtain. Neumann comes out at the start of the show to announce that the sets have unfortunately not arrived in time for tonight's performance. From his crummy suit-coat, we gather that the costumes haven't either. Or the other actors.

He does have three bricks--real bricks, not props. (He clinks them together to show how solid they are.) These will become the walls in the play, the ones between the prince and the girl. If we the audience use our imaginations, by the third act we will reach catharsis.

No more catharsis than we have paid for, however. And the hat that was left at the door is not exactly overflowing with contributions. What swine audiences are! They also expect you to know all the words.

As the evening goes on, we hear less and less about the prince and the girl, and overhear more and more about the actor. "I feel safe here," he says of the stage. A minute later, it's, "I'm scared."

He remembers how he conned his papa into letting him go to drama school, where he would surely "find himself." This does not seem to have occurred. He remembers the insults he took at drama school about his accent. He remembers slaving away at a certain speech. "Is this natural enough?"

He jumps in and out of "Macbeth." "Is this a dagger that I see before me?" No, it's a cap pistol. He fires it at the audience. The swine refuse to die. Instead, they keep looking at him. How would they like to be up here?

Being a professional, however, our actor does not freak out. Instead, he dies. Twice! (This shows his versatility.) He finishes with Clov's bleak monologue from "Endgame": "When I fall, I'll weep for happiness." But he comes back for his curtain calls.

"Kill Hamlet" was written by a Yugoslav actor, Zijah A. Sokolovic. His play suggests that an actor groping for his lines is as valid an image of the human condition as anything in Shakespeare or Beckett. It also allows us a laugh at the actor, who is, after all, over-dramatizing the horror of it all--it's his business.

If there's any preciousness in the text (translated into easy and natural English by David Cameron Palastanga), it's neutralized by the blunt physical presence of actor Neumann, with his solid build and bullet-head. He keeps the piece down-to-earth, and he knows how to manage an audience (even to getting some people to come up on stage and help him do the play).

Neumann and his director, Joseph Hartmann, have followed Brecht's advice that avant-garde theater shouldn't get too far above itself. "Kill Hamlet" is an entertainment before it's a meditation, and Saturday's audience at the Powerhouse was with it all the way. Neumann and Hartmann won't need a sneaky title the next time they come to town.

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