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Austin's Puppet Hamlet is Comedy, with Mystery

Austin is playing host to a play entitled Der Bestrafte Brudermord, produced by Austin’s own The Hidden Room. Playing until February 7th, the play is the puppet show version of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. Never heard of it? That’s quite understandable, because its very existence was pieced together by rarefied, world-class literary research by Oxford professor Tiffany Stern. The initial clue to its existence was a sketchy scenario found in a German monastery in 1710 and published in 1780 as Der Bestrafte Brudermord, translated as The Fratricide, Punished. The characters and plot are all Hamlet’s. Stern’s research sought to answer the very large question of: what if this stageplay and script were for a puppet show of Hamlet? Might it have toured Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries? This was the beginning of the excitement.

Professor Stern gave the substance of her research in the Thomas Cranfill Endowed Lecture, at the University of Texas at Austin. She led us through her fascinating literary detective story about how puppet troupes toured their popular plays through Europe in the 18th century. And Hamlet was one of the most popular stories of the time. Dr. Stern illustrated her talk with period engravings and woodcuts of puppet shows in progress, always with human translators out front, pointing sticks in hand. Most tellingly, Dr. Stern showed photographs of an Italian puppet named Ambleto, Italian for Hamlet, residing in a puppet museum in Italy. The puppet has long blond locks and princely costume garments. His puppet can carry and manipulate a second puppet or appurtenance, a crudely fashioned human skull puppet. Yorick, of course.

Dr. Stern and The Hidden Room’s Beth Burns discovered each other in England, working on various projects. Operating on the basis of What If?, a stage realization of Der Befstrafte Brudermord became a full blown project of the Hidden Room, not ordinarily considered a company of puppet theatre. The company used a new English translation of the play by Christine Schmidle and credited puppet design to Jesse Kingsley and Moira MacDonald of Mystery Bird Puppet Theatre. When the limits of inference and documentation were exceeded, they relied on 18th century contextualization: how was it done in the 1700s? What did puppet stages look like? What was set design like at the time? The finished project is a work of impressively complex collaboration. The Hidden Room did marvelous creative work in all phases of the production, building their puppet stage and fabricating careful period features throughout—marionette puppets, puppet and actor costumes and wigs, props, set paintings, and music. A special shout-out goes to Jennifer Rose Davis, an artistic specialist in the period, whose efforts crosscut five design fields with emphasis on authentic recreations of 18th century puppet costumes. Plus, she was one of the musicians in the performance, having composed the period music, of course.

The results here push the envelope of originality. If it wasn’t like this in the 18th century, it should have been. The 21st century certainly gains by Hidden Room’s Der Bestrafte Brudermord. The skilled marionette puppeteers were Joseph Garlock, Ryan Hamilton, Jeff Mills and Kim Adams. The translators out front were Judd Farris and Jason Newman. Beyond their skilled character voice work, these translators played music, danced, performed all the sound effects, and incited the audience to rhythmic clapping while puppets danced.

Besides its artistic presentation of a work of world literature, the production kept entertainment value on the front burner, as 18th century audiences would have demanded. The script for the most part conveys Hamlet as a comedy with entertaining bloody murders, a la mode in the 18th century. The puppet manipulations gave oddly beautiful feeling to the stone-faced puppets. But Hamlet’s more than existential visit with Yorick’s skull in the graveyard (Act V, Scene I) is curiously missing from the play.

The short on all of this is that the puppet Hamlet of The Hidden Room perpetuates all of the fascination audiences have felt for it for centuries. Unanswered questions remain, however. The Ambleto puppet in Italy, dated narrowly to ca. 1660, has its Yorick skull attachment, yet Der Bestrafte Brudermord does not contain the graveyard scene. If the Ambleto puppet was used in full-production puppet shows, does this not imply that other puppet Hamlet plays with their differing script versions may have been in production in the 17th and 18th centuries? And if so, might their scripts still be in existence? The scholarly Hamlet mysteries may continue, delightfully so.

For the moment, one can only hope that The Hidden Room’s Der Bestrafte Brudermord tours widely to the benefit of its fans on at least three continents. Anyone with any curiosity about Shakespeare or puppet shows should buy a ticket to this production. It plays until February 7th at the York Rite Masonic Hall in downtown Austin.

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