Shakespeare himself was big fan of the old play-within-a-play bit, so it makes sense that many people use his works with this intention. The key, however, is making your approach unique. Kiss Me, Kate added songs, Shakespeare in Love added a cross-dressing romantic interest, and now Sergei Burbank's The Danish Mediations/Slots adds something for the MTV generation: an omnipresent camera that gives way to Real World-style confessionals on the trials and tribulations of working actors. The result is a raw take on the theater industry that feels as if an appropriate alternate title might be "Broadway, Uncut." This approach has its rewards and drawbacks. The tension builds naturally and uncomfortably, leading to electrifying releases. However, the main challenge with this style is making scripted scenes seem voyeuristic. Sometimes the camera monologues grate and the play slowly trudges on, but when it clicks, the exhilaration is infectious.
Kiah (Jason Updike) is putting on a production of Hamlet, in which he and the five other cast members will pick their roles out of a jar for each performance. One caveat for Bard fans: the choice of Hamlet goes largely without qualification, aside from sparse quotations and an overarching emphasis on self-analysis and brooding.
If learning every part of the work weren't stressful enough, the cast members' patience wears thin when one actor-cum-aspiring filmmaker, Sam (Gary Patent), creates a blog about their rehearsals—complete with videos and commentary.
All the action is divided between the stage and the white screen hanging against the backdrop. Onscreen, we see another apartment, where the team rehearses and shares heart-to-heart confessions with Sam's camera. The obvious theme behind The Danish Mediations/Slots is that the unscripted drama backstage can be just as, if not more, intense than the production in front of the curtain. Among petulant divas, intimidating showoffs, and former flames, tempers flare, and nearly everyone beds a co-star. Sure, it's a somewhat stereotypical take on the acting profession, but the performances are so strong that they transcend the occasional formulaic nature of the character development.
The ensemble plays the mounting tension very well (no need to ruminate on where they might be drawing inspiration from), as their characters' rapidly thinning veils of professionalism give way to sniping, secret crushes, and taunting. When released, the pent-up feelings or frustrations flood the stage with exciting energy.
When Charles (Jason Altman), the cocky TV star who's sluggishly attempting to get some stage cred, finally breaks down, it's a particularly stunning scene. While the case against the "celebutard" has been repeated again and again by his cast mates (always late, missing rehearsals, teasing the scrawny Sam), Altman's self-defense is a touching surprise that shows the fragility beneath the frat boy facade.
Such charged moments are fueled by the way director Adam Karsten consistently keeps the actors in motion. At any given moment, someone always seems to be dashing offstage (to other commitments), dashing onstage (late again), choreographing a fight scene, shuffling through props, or whirling around another actor as they argue. The absence of idle moments keeps the pace sharp and appropriately rushed—after all, they have an opening that's quickly approaching.
This physical approach is most powerful in the conclusion to Act One. After a fight breaks out, Kiah pulls the team together to recite a soliloquy. As the actors each perform a section, trying to spin their frustration into motivation, they move in and out of each other's spaces as if dancing through a shared electric current. The energy builds as the group members realize that they're finally clicking and peaks when Kiah delivers the final couplet.
The same cannot be said for the camera monologues. At one point, Sam contemplates the pros and cons of soliloquies: "But how do they help the story?" he asks. "You don't think characters gain more through active opposition?" While the discussion makes Burbank's script impressively self-aware, it also highlights its weak spot. The characters' camera monologues are indeed important, but by video, say, No. 11, their revelations aren't that revealing and become a little boring.
Perhaps this is because Act Two is more focused on actual performances rather than rehearsals, so those same shots at the apartment don't mesh as well with the polished stage sets of the dressing rooms and squeaky-clean floors of a theater as they did with the tarp-covered, paint-strewn practice space. Thankfully, the confessions start to fade away.
Whether they're delivering a wordy soliloquy on-camera or spouting Shakespeare, the cast smoothly navigates the varied terrain (and media) with poise. Fayna Sanchez is, by turns, comedic and ferocious as the boisterous Liz, and Noelle Holly, as Ryn, approaches what is by far the most modest part with an engaging and graceful performance.
With solid acting from everyone and a script that flows quite naturally, this is a well-oiled production. But you have to wonder if the rehearsals went so smoothly.