Death and Doggie Hamlet

The audience of DOGGIE HAMLET at Vermont Shepard Farm, before the show. (Photo by Rachel Lauder Nalebuff.)

The audience of DOGGIE HAMLET at the Vermont Shepard Farm, before the show. (Photo by Rachel Kauder Nalebuff.)

If we consider the idea (from Andy Horwitz) that a performance begins when it first enters one’s imagination, then I have been enjoying Ann Carlson’s Doggie Hamlet for quite some time, wondering what an interpretation of Shakespeare with shepherding dogs, four human performers, and a flock of sheep could possibly mean. Dogs rolling over and over and over, to represent death? A sheep playing the ghost of a king?

Carlson, a conceptual choreographer and dancer, has incorporated animals on and off in her performance work for over twenty years. In Visit Woman Move Story Cat Cat Cat (1998), the work that established Carlson’s solo career, she explored maternity by dancing with a cat. Her most recent piece, Animal Dance (2016), involves a goldfish. Only a handful of people may ever know what these dances actually mean, but the head-scratching pleasure of imagining Carlson’s performances seem to be much a part of Carlson’s practice as the shows themselves.

None of this is to diminish, however, the actual experience of Doggie Hamlet, presented this September by the Vermont Performance Lab, and which felt like sixty minutes of pure wonder. Sheep, dogs, the body, a field—these things may not be inherently extraordinary, but in Carlson’s world, they became so. The piece was staged outdoors at the Vermont Shepherd Farm, where sheep cheeses were available to sample before the show. And so, with the taste of cheddar from the brethren of the performers we were about to watch still fresh in our mouths, we sat down to watch the piece.

Doggie Hamlet begins with a sheep stampede, the sound of hoofs rattling through the valley as well as through the audience, seated on hay bales against the ground. I saw the piece with a friend, and this sound—the epic feeling of it in contrast to the quiet hills around us—prompted us to clutch one another. Even the sheep farmers, who spend their days with these animals, were quiet.

After the first few rounds of largely silent sheep, dog, and human laps around the field, I stopped trying to connect the piece to the plot of Hamlet. As it turned out, Carlson’s interpretation draws more David Wroblewski’s The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, which itself is a loose interpretation of Hamlet, rather than Shakespeare’s original. But more than any kind of narrative, Doggie Hamlet seems interested in sensory meditation, and in examining the dynamic between humans and animals—the possibility of connection between the two, and the overtness of power at play when the species meet. You could say that Doggie Hamlet is a reflection on Shakespeare’s themes, sure, but I think that’s really just a way of saying this piece is about the complexity of life.

I want to focus on one particular section of Doggie Hamlet, which I’ve been thinking about now for two weeks, and am still trying to understand:

About mid-way through the piece, the performers (Peter Schmitz, Ryan Tacata, and Diane Frank—each with a magnetic rough-and-tumble-ness about them) stood before the flock of sheep and dramatically unfurled sheep skins directly in front of the animals. Doggie Hamlet doesn’t invite much anthropomorphization, but in this moment, the sheep seemed genuinely taken aback. I’m guessing this was prompted more from the synchronized gesture, the sound of the unfurling, the sudden shadow, and even the direct focus of the performers, rather than the fact that they were staring at the skin of their dead. The sheep’s seeming “shock,” but also the impossible intellectual connections the piece was suggesting, led the audience to laugh.

And then, in a split-second, what began as a pitying laugh—as in haha silly sheep who can’t possibly comprehend the complexity of the death they are staring at—turned into something more complicated as the image revealed itself to be a more human portrait. This moment actually seemed to be about us, how we stare at our own versions of sheepskins every dayillness, war, antibiotic resistance, hurricanes, state-sanctioned violence, the impending election of one of two war-mongering fascists—and we go on with our daily lives, reacting not much more consciously than the sheep, who respond to their concerns only by releasing little poops.

Carlson’s image offers a window to the cosmically scary truth. But why is this funny? Why is the idea of our blindness towards suffering, towards our own death something that makes us guffaw? My friend the poet Max Ritvo, who passed away in August, wrote a lot about the absurdity and inherent humor in thinking that we can rise above the democratic touch of death. “Trump and a vagrant spend maybe fifty to a hundred years living drastically different lives, and then they spend an eternity being silly looking skeletons after bloating blue and getting eaten by tiny, really dumb worms,” Max wrote matter-of-factly in a piece on the humor of dying. I hadn’t laughed at death—our human denial of it—in this way, maybe ever, until this sheepskin moment. And it reminded me of another idea of Max’s, that we probably don’t “introduce humor into fear, or introduce humor into sadness.” But that it illuminates something that was there all along.

In an interview with Theatre Magazine, Carlson explains she tries to create space on stage for animals to “be themselves.” This was palpable in this moment—as the sheep, the performers, and all of us confronted the sheepskins in our innate ways at the same time. Staring at the sheepskins also prompted several questions I had never considered before, such as: What does death mean to a sheep? Is fear of death an entirely human construction?

To everyone’s surprise, right after this moment, the performers wrapped themselves up tightly in the sheepskins, and babbled in gibberish. They looked like deranged clowns, or maybe creatures from a Nick Cave soundsuit or an Edward Gorey’s illustration. They were performing performatively, but not for us—it was for the sheep, who just stared at the humans blankly.

Here was yet another stunning moment of miscommunication—of humans working so hard to suggest a meaning to animals and then us watching it, projecting our own meaning onto the animals’ interpretation of it, but really, of everyone failing, except for the sheep, who were simply being themselves. And again, everybody laughed.

There is a theory that comedy comes from an unexpected shift in power, and that was certainly happening—here were humans doing backflips to entertain livestock, who seemed to be fulfilling the role of a snooty audience perfectly by not caring or noticing, even. But I think this moment was also so pleasurable because it felt self-aware of its own absurdity, and even of performances’ absurdity at large. I’m sure all of us identified with the sheep at various moments in the piece, and Carlson’s play-within-the play (ah, and here is Hamlet!) gave us permission to wonder, like the sheep: what the are these humans doing? Right now, but also in general! How strange that we prance around, pretending to be something that we are not! Why do we do this for one another, again? For a moment, Doggie Hamlet, reveals the nature performance to be as strange as it is. I think my favorite aspect of Hamlet is how it frames life’s most serious endeavors through the mouthpiece of a solipsistic teenager, thereby collapsing everything’s weight. Hamlet contemplates life and death with such gravity—and his questions are serious—just as performance is serious—but he is also a brooding little twat. To fully understand his soliloquy, we have to be able to laugh at it too. Carlson’s Doggie Hamlet puts us in this place.

After the piece, I fittingly contemplated my own death for three hours during my drive home. I was driving a friend’s stick shift Saab down the windy roads of Massachusetts. It had been four years since I’d driven a manual car and I’d forgotten how to down-shift entirely. The radio wasn’t picking up any signals, and my phone was dying, so it was just me and my fear of death by car-stalling-plus-sudden-rear-ending-plus-neck-whip-lashing-and-cracking-plus-remoteness-from-a-hospital. I decided to sing to myself to put this image out of my mind. Unfortunately, the only song I’m ever able to remember under duress is “Come Away With Me” by Norah Jones. I have really tried to add songs to this cannon, but nothing else sticks. (Well no. I also remember “Happy Birthday,” but that felt oddly ominous to sing in the context. And maybe any context outside a birthday.). As I barreled down a web of unpaved roads, singing elevator music I don’t even like the top of my lungs, feeling like a madwoman, I chose to laugh.

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