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September 22, 2015

A Method to His Madness: Michael Laurence’s new play Hamlet in Bed at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater

Playwright and actor Michael Laurence enjoys creating plays whose characters and themes are spun out of or, as he puts it, “in conversation with” classic texts. In his latest play, Hamlet in Bed, Laurence plays Michael, an actor obsessed both with playing Hamlet and finding his birth mother. When he thinks he’s found her in a former actress turned barfly, Anna May Miller (Annette O’Toole), he casts her as Hamlet’s mother Gertrude in his workshop production of Hamlet. As they rehearse, they grow closer but also closer to madness. Directed by Lisa Peterson, Hamlet in Bed runs through October 25th at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater. Culturadar blogger Shoshana Greenberg talked to Laurence about his genre-bending plays, his character’s and his own love of Hamlet, and mothers and sons.

Culturadar: Was Hamlet the inspiration for Hamlet in Bed or did you start by exploring themes which led you to Hamlet?

Michael Laurence: The play started as a character study of this woman who was a former actress turned barfly. The very first inklings and fragments had to do with her character. Eventually, the story and my obsession with Hamlet found themselves colliding with this new character I had imagined. And out of that weird collision, this hybrid formed.

CR: Your writing has been inspired by other plays before.

ML: I consider Hamlet in Bed to be a companion piece to another one of my plays, Krapp 39. With that piece I developed a narrative voice that now continues through Hamlet in Bed. Both plays share the conceit that they are about a conflicted, some might say neurotic, actor/writer who is tangling, shadowboxing, dancing, in conversation, whatever it is, with a classic text. In the case of Krapp 39, it’s with Samuel Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape. Maybe it comes from fact that I’m an actor, and my creative energy revolves around my identification and my obsession with certain roles. Hamlet is a play I saw for the first time when I was 11 years old. It’s had a grip on my imagination my whole life.

CR: Is there a term you use to describe this type of play?

ML: They are genre-bending pieces, a little bit punk and a little bit classical. There’s a strange dissonance by colliding a contemporary vibe with classic texts. The form of this piece is a real hybrid. It toggles back and forth between performance styles—half on microphones à la Spalding Gray or The Wooster Group, half realistic scenes off-mic. I love going back and forth between the two, maybe because I cut my teeth in two directions as a young theater artist, obsessed with Shakespeare and classics and also with downtown, experimental theater.

CR: Why are the monologues performed on microphones?

ML: I love the effect that the voice has when it’s mediated through video, audio, or microphones. We have so many associations that we bring to a person standing at a mic—poetry slams, rock stars—and I enjoy that all these associations are living in the room with an artist using a microphone. It’s also a nostalgia for a kind of theater in New York that doesn’t really exist anymore. In that downtown Wooster Group/Richard Forman kind of scene, mics were de rigueur.

CR: When you are writing a part for yourself, what are you considering?

ML: I’m imagining parts for myself that I would like to play and writing a monologue that I’d like to say. My heroes have always been writer-performers: Sam Shepard, Spalding Gray, Wallace Shawn, Anna Deavere Smith, Eric Bogosian. That’s the ultimate, to write the piece and then perform it.

CR: When did Annette O'Toole come on board and what do you think she brings to the character of Anna?

ML: She came on board for this premiere production. I had never met Annette before, but she had worked with our director Lisa Peterson, so Lisa had an inkling that we would work well together. She is fearless, and the role calls for it. She just gets the role and devours it whole. She has a hunger for the character, and she just dove into the deep end.

CR: Obsession is a major element in the story. How is it integral to Michael’s character?

ML: The character has two obsessions: playing the role of Hamlet and finding his birth mother. When those two obsessions collide, that’s what puts the story in motion. The setup for this play has always in my mind been like a fable or has had a fairy tale logic to it. On its own, it’s barely plausible as a premise. Michael says, “Look, I am looking for this person, but I know I might be crazy. This might be all my own obsession.” As the play goes on, it turns out he’s a character on the edge of madness, mirroring Hamlet.

CR: Do you think this is Anna’s story or Michael’s story?

ML: I’ve had fun with that structural puzzle. I think it is ultimately both of their stories, and there’s a narrative passing of the baton that happens in course of play. The play starts out as Michael’s story. He has this authorial role. She is sort of conjured at first in his imagination and memory. As she comes to the fore and starts to grab the reins of the story, she becomes a co-author or co-narrator of the story, and she begins talking to the audience as well. By end, he has turned the page and the stage over to her, and she becomes the sole author of the story.

CR: A major theme of this play is the relationship between mothers and sons. What about that specifically did you want to explore?

ML: That theme of mothers and sons, and families in general, is prevalent in Hamlet. Like my character in the play, I also think that the relationship in Hamlet between Hamlet and his mother Gertrude is the central relationship. For being the most famous mother in all of Shakespeare, it’s actually a shockingly sparse role on the page. There’s a lot of question and ambiguity that surround her motivations and her character arc. I was interested in bringing those questions to the fore.

I was also interested in looking at families from the point of view of someone who is finding his family as he’s going on through life. That’s what we do as theater artists, we create these families with every show, every project, and sometimes those relationships are ephemeral and sometimes they last a lifetime.

And I was interested in search and reunion stories with adopted children and birth mothers. One story that I once heard from someone in my family is that of a violinist who met his birth mother, a pianist, only for about an hour, and they played a piece of music together. This story of lost souls finding each other through art is one of the engines for Hamlet in Bed.

Photos by Tristan Fuge.
Shoshana Greenberg writes musicals, plays, and prose. Her musicals include Lightning Man (Ars Nova ANT Fest) and Days of Rage, and her play The Rapture of our Teeth (a parody of Wilder's The Skin of Our Teeth) is published on Indie Theater Now. She earned her MFA from NYU’s Graduate Musical Theater Writing Program after graduating from Barnard College. She also writes about theater for Women and Hollywood and The Huffington Post.

Posted at 10:32 AM

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