Van Ryzin: Shakespeare supplies the words for Austin puppet show

Hidden Room Theatre’s production of “Der Bestrafte Brudermord, or Hamlet Prince of Denmark,” opening this weekend at the York Rite Theatre, puts to the test for the first time a new theory proposed by a noted Oxford University scholar.

The Austin theater company is collaborating with Tiffany Stern, a Shakespeare expert who maintains that one of the Bard’s best-known tragedies was reworked in 1710 in Germany, adapted and presented as a quick-paced, exuberant puppet show.

Beth Burns, artistic director of Hidden Room, heard Stern deliver a lecture at the American Shakespeare Center’s Blackfriars Conference a few years ago in which Stern rocked the world of scholars with her proposition: That, indeed, a 1710 manuscript found in a German monastery is a somewhat bawdy puppet version of “Hamlet.”

“Shakespeare is so often thought of now as strictly literature — as fixed, unchanging texts,” Burns says. “But in fact, Shakespeare’s plays were widely altered throughout the years, and various versions or abbreviations were staged all the time.”

(Last year, Burns and Hidden Room netted several awards from the Austin Critics’ Table for “Rose Rage,” an adaptation of Shakespeare’s sprawling Henry VI trilogy, cut down into an epic two-part event.)

Stern’s research behind “Der Bestrafte Brudermord” illuminates a previously unknown (though not completely unsuspected) manner in which Shakespeare’s plays ricocheted throughout popular culture in the centuries after his death — that various cash-strapped traveling troupes of English actors would take their shows on the road to Europe, where alterations, changes and translation happened along the way in order to sell the play to a local audience. And that popular plays of the time were transformed into puppet productions was not unheard of.

Stern, who will be in Austin for this weekend’s opening, will give a free lecture on her research at 4 p.m. Thursday at the University of Texas’ Ransom Center. (See the information box.)

As a director, Burns favors what’s known as “original practices” — staging a play as closely as it was in its own time and with its creator’s original intent.

“Using the playing conditions of the time actually opens up more possibilities,” she says. “Instead of fighting against the original script with a modern interpretation, you can actually find new avenues to explore.”

For an American audience, however, Burns is using a new English translation of “Der Bestrafte Brudermord” by Christine Schmidle that is as direct from the original German as possible. (“Bestrafte Brudermord” translates to “Fratricide Punished.”)

Burns and the Hidden Room troupe premiered their production last fall at the Shakespeare Center’s Blackfriars’ Conference.

But not before considerable research.

Available records of late 17th- and early 18th-century European puppet stagecraft are few. Burns and her collaborators used materials offered by Stern from her research — such as historical playbills, popular drawings and engravings from the time — in order to discern how a puppet show may have been presented in early 1700s Germany.

Close scrutiny revealed references to considerable slapstick and ribald action (a staple of puppet theater) and even a stage direction that dictated that the character of the ghost of Hamlet’s father open and shut its jaw (presumably like a puppet, not a human). No jokes were ever too low for puppet productions, it seems, nor were sentiments ever anything less than cloyingly sentimental. Early modern puppet plays boasted boisterous battle scenes, musical interludes and plenty of spectacle.

And meant for a popular audience and (historically shows were often staged within a greater public fair or event), “Der Bestrafte Brudermord” clips along at a brisk 70 minutes.

Most curious in the manuscript of “Der Bestrafte Brudermord” was a reference to a narrator — a human actor who stands in front of the puppet stage, talking to the puppets and to the audience, even voicing the puppet characters’ lines.

“The narrator is really almost part actor, part carnival barker — an odd snake-charming huckster who draws the audience to the show,” says Burns. “He teases the audience, encourages booing or applause, he’ll pick up props the puppets drop, he’s a translator between the world of the puppets and the reactions of the audience.”

From their research, Burns and the development crew — including Austin puppeteers Caroline Reck and Connor Hopkins along with Jesse Kingsley of Los Angeles’ Mystery Bird Puppet Theatre, who fashioned the puppets — elected to use two-and-a-half-feet tall Sicilian rod marionettes with period-appropriate human hair wigs.

As she has with past Hidden Room productions, Burns is staging “Der Bestrafte Brudermord” in the theater of the historic York Rite Masonic Hall — with a little razzle dazzle.

It seems that puppet shows of the 18th-century were not without a few pyrotechnics.

“We’ve got a way to affect a little lightning in the show,” Burns says.

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