Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Get thee to a clownery: Infinite Stage revisits ‘Hamlet’

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Stan Barouh
Send in the clowns: Colleen Harris, left, and Anna Olivia Moore perform in an Infinite Stage production. The troupe will perform ‘‘Hamlet? That is the Question?” at the Capital Fringe Festival this week.
It’s a tragedy.

Not my meeting with Leslie Felbain – the dancer-actor-circus performer who is also a playwright, director, assistant professor at the University of Maryland’s theater department and the artistic director of Silver Spring-based Infinite Stage — that goes well. I mean ‘‘Hamlet” as in William Shakespeare: brooding Dane, scheming uncle, crazy girlfriend, ‘‘Alas, poor Yorick,” and all that.

It’s a tragedy, so why is Felbain staging it as a ‘‘red nose production,” with a troupe of clowns and a play within a play within a play?

‘‘Clowns work well with ‘les grands themes’ of life,” says Felbain, who studied at the Ecole Jacques Lecoq and Atelier Serge Martin in Paris. ‘‘Love, death, jealousy – in ‘Hamlet,’ we are focusing on these themes. Revenge, passion, indecision, greed, death — tragedy is the most fertile territory for a clown.”

And the second annual Capital Fringe Festival is the most fertile territory for dramatic works that step out of the box. Its mission, after all, ‘‘is to connect exploratory artists with adventurous audiences by creating an open access annual performing arts festival in the District of Columbia.” For someone like Felbain, relatively new to the area and in possession of a unique arts resume that literally spans the world, it’s the perfect place to begin.


Felbain looks just like a teacher of movement and drama should: slim and expressive, with a shock of black, wavy hair, dark-rimmed glasses and a black T-shirt. She grew up in Ohio, studied abroad at 16, and double-majored in pre-med and dance at the University of Wisconsin, Madison — graduating with a bachelor of science degree in dance and anatomy. She spent six months in Italy, then headed for New York City and the Don Redlich School of Dance.

‘‘In New York, I met street performers,” she says, ‘‘and they taught me how to juggle, how to ride a unicycle, how to walk a tightrope.”

Which led her to France, naturellement, to Lecoq and Martin and Le Dal Theatre and, well, Europe, basically.

‘‘London, Zurich, Paris, Milan, Vienna, Berlin,” she says, ticking off the cities on her fingers. But she fell in love with an American and ended up back in the States, albeit in San Francisco, teaching in the American Conservatory Theater’s master of fine arts program.

After 18 years on the West Coast, Felbain, her actor-musician husband and their nearly 13-year-old son came East — and instead of juggling pins or rubber balls, the artist is juggling her career at the university, her family’s relocation and her work with Infinite Stage.

Fringe on top

‘‘The Fringe Festival is a grass roots organization whose purpose is to stretch the boundaries and build the vitality of arts in D.C.,” Felbain explains. ‘‘It gives the opportunity to new companies like us to have our work showcased.”

And it extends an opportunity to audiences, too: a chance to check out something different at an affordable price.

‘‘The business of the arts is complicated,” Felbain sighs. ‘‘We don’t have a huge portfolio to present; we don’t have a big budget.”

What they do have is talent — seven Equity actors, plus a handful of undergraduates and recent graduates from the University of Maryland in the cast as well as several master’s candidates doing costume and lighting design. Felbain works closely with dramaturge Susan Haedicke, her partner in adapting Shakespeare’s original script into a 70-minute, 98 percent original version with Ophelia, Hamlet, Gertrude, Polonius and Claudius played by clowns while a ghost chorus moves the action along.

‘‘It’s not ‘we are going to rework Hamlet!’” the director says. ‘‘It’s, ‘What are the themes? And what [portions of the] text really speak to these themes?

‘‘There’s an appeal to all ages in this work,” Felbain says. ‘‘Younger people will be attracted to the visual images and the appeal of a clown onstage; an older person, who has more political knowledge, will be able to connect the metaphors.”

The show’s multigenerational aspect is most important to Felbain and her troupe — that, and the clowns.

‘‘Clowns have a connection to the audience,” she says. ‘‘They’re exuberant. Sometimes people get lost in the text of a show: Clowns have a sense of play.”

And a sense of comedy, even in a tragedy.

Infinite Stage presents ‘‘Hamlet? That is the Question” at the Capital Fringe Festival. Performances are at 9:30 p.m. Thursday, 2:30 p.m. Friday, 5:30 p.m. Saturday and 7:15 p.m. Sunday in the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Rehearsal Hall, 641 D St. NW, Washington, D.C. Tickets are $15. Call 866-811-4111 or visit