Leave it to word nerd Tom Stoppard, 82, to be the author of a double bill about the power of language as puzzling and pointed as Dogg’s Hamlet, Cahoot’s Macbeth, at Atlantic Stage 2 through Aug. 4. Presented by the Potomac Theatre Project in a brisk, ably acted revival directed by PTP’s Cheryl Faraone, the 40-year-old playlets are linked by more than a comma. There’s an overlapping character and a made-up lingo.
Dogg’s Hamlet begins with school kids chatting while tossing a ball and eating lunch. Mundane stuff. But it’s strange in this case since the trio speaks Dogg – English words that don’t mean what they usually do. (“Cube,” for instance, is the way to say “thank you.”) The action and audio don’t match. Gibberish subsides when the students rehearse lines from Hamlet, which they butcher because the lines are in English. In a sly twist, Stoppard turns a common notion of Shakespeare being like a foreign language on its head.
The arrival of Easy (an ace Matthew Ball), who’s delivering supplies to build a stage, complicates matters. He speaks English, not Dogg, and chaos ensues. When the stage is finally constructed, a quickie Hamlet, led by a winking Christo Grabowski as the dour Dane, plays out in hilarious, lightning-quick fashion. Ophelia, Polonius, Gertrude, Claudius, Hamlet – all dead within 15 minutes. But the language of Dogg lives on.
After intermission, Cahoot’s Macbeth, which is dedicated to a Czech author who adapted the Scottish play to be performed in living rooms amid government repression, unfolds in a modest parlor.
“When shall we three meet again,” chant actors playing witches, who, like their castmates, speak in English. The streamlined classic proceeds handily, but as soon as Macbeth (Christopher Marshall), egged on by Lady M (Denise Cormier), kills Duncan, sirens blare and a trench-coated inspector (a terrific Tara Giordano) barges in. She accuses the actors, whom she casually denigrates, of subversion. But she insists that the show continues, and it does – until Easy shows up again to disrupt things. But he now speaks Dogg, prompting hurly-burly and the hostess to wail, “At the moment we’re not sure if it’s a language or a clinical condition.”
But in short order, Cahoot (Grabowski) and all the actors pick up Dogg. But not the detective, who observes, “Words can be your friend or your enemy depending on who’s throwing the book, so watch your language.” Stoppard’s point about gobbledygook morphing into the language of resistance isn’t exactly subtle, but that’s probably intentional. It’s a message the author doesn’t want anyone to miss. In short, Dogg has its day.
Dogg’s Hamlet, Cahoot’s Macbeth runs in rotation with Havel: the Passion of Thought, short works by Vaclav Havel, who knew and influenced Stoppard, Harold Pinter and Samuel Beckett.