Friday, April 16, 2010

Dale Gutzman's Hamlin

Off The Wall Theatre stages update of the Pied Piper story

By Russ Bickerstaff
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In the past couple of months, a number of new plays by local playwrights have debuted on Milwaukee stages. A solidly entertaining thriller, Dale Gutzman’s new Off The Wall Theatre show, which opened last night, compares favorably with every other locally-written debut in the past couple of months. Far from brilliant or breathtaking, Guzman’s Hamlin is nonetheless an admirably ambitious concept competently executed by Off The Wall. 

The play is a pretty straightforward modern interpretation of the legend of the Pied Piper Of Hamlin. Here Hamlin is a modern American town run by a corporation. The play wastes no time in introducing us to the heads of the corporation. Jeremy Welter plays Charles Hamlin—young patriarch of the corporation. Welter is in tragic hero mode as he manages a very sympathetic performance. He’s tragically flawed and ends up being one of the few genuinely likeable characters in the play. Welter’s particularly good when placed in a role like this. Charles is constantly plagued by the comic bitterness of his mother Cora (Donna Lobaacz.) Lobacz plays a pretty good ice queen here, managing a few truly chillingly comic moments. Bob Hirschi and Lawrence J. Lukasavage play executives with the corporation. Both characters have some complexity to them that both actors bring to the stage pretty well. These are normal, everyday people with the kind of human flaws one would expect in a modern re-telling of the Pied Piper story.

We find out in the first dialogue of the play that the town of Hamlin is, of course, overrun with rats that are spreading a deadly disease. Gutzman does a pretty good job of bringing the concerns of the outbreak of a disease into present day America once one has suspended one’s disbelief. News of any major outbreak is going to spread very, very quickly in the modern era. The government is going to find out right away. The CDC would be alerted immediately, one would like to think . . . but this IS a town run by a corporation and anyone who has cared to read about it has heard horror stories about places in Florida almost completely run by the Walt Disney Corporation, so it’s a stretch, but not THAT much of a stretch. The heads of the Hamlin Corporation are trying to contain the disease without having to have anyone find out just how disastrous it could have been, so they look to hire a man who can clean out the town without causing too much of a stir . . . a strange played by Christopher Elst. The presentation of the stranger is kind of clever . . . something of a mysterious drifter from the East in the fashion of Kane from Kung-Fu. Elst has a suitably serene presence about him that makes him a very charismatic hero. The vaguely Eastern-ish prose poetry he’s called on to speak here isn’t always the best, but Elst delivers it all with a real passion for the role that sells it all brilliantly.

The story plays out pretty much the way one might expect. Gutzman’s writing here is some of his best to make it to the stage in quite some time. There dialogue may be riddled with hackneyed clichés in places, but the drama, comedy and pacing of the script as a whole remains engrossing throughout the show’s entire 100 minutes onstage. There are some really clever bits in the script including a surprisingly subtle Snakes On A Plane reference . . . and not all of the more subtle moments that Gutzman wrote into the script are brought to the stage with a sympathetic amount of subtlety from the cast, but on the whole this is a very well-executed show. All the technical elements of the production, from sound to lighting to blocking and such are handled quite well.


The implications of bringing the Pied Piper story into contemporary setting could potentially be very unsettling, but Gutzman handles it all with a very comfortable sense of competently-executed melodrama. Given his opportunity to play with and mutate the framework of the original story, Gutzman’s decision to stick fairly closely to it is admirably reserved. The story could go in almost any direction once the plot is introduced, but Gutzman remains faithful to the original story. That being said, it would’ve been interesting to see the premise brought into the present a bit more intricately. Simply having the town decide to pay the piper less than he originally asked for doesn’t do justice to the bewildering complexity of the modern business world.

There are strong and unnerving parallels between the current financial crisis and the Pied Piper story . . .  parallels that involve hedge funds, the housing market and a very, very advanced financial world. A truly brilliant script would’ve balanced some of the contemporary lore of the current financial crisis into the melodrama, drawing parallels between it and the original legend. It would be unsettling. Instead, we get the vaguely creepy suggestion of rats scurrying around the intimate confines of the Off The Wall Theatre and the vague suggestion of what great masses of them can do. People cringe, but they know they’re safe. The only rodent in the production is safely caged, brought out at the end to wrap-up the show. A much more sophisticated integration of the Pied Piper story into the contemporary world would have been far more interesting, but Hamlin is a solidly entertaining evening at the theatre.  

Off The Wall’s Hamlin
runs through April 25th at the Off The Wall Theatre.

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