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Memory and Nostalgia in Hamlet, My Fair Lady and an exhibition about Lee Miller and Man Ray

September 24, 2012

Finding a way to talk about California Shakespeare Theatre's production of Hamlet, SF Playhouse's take on My Fair Lady and the Man Ray and Lee Miller: Partners in Surrealism exhibition at the Legion of Honor all in a single blog post might seem like a stretch. I kind of agree.

But I'd like to cover these very different experiences together anyway because it strikes me that they all have one thing in common: An attitude towards memory, particularly as it pertains to nostalgia. 

My Fair Lady is nothing if not a source of nostalgia for theatre goers. There are so many memorable songs in the piece and Audrey Hepburn and Rex Harrison's performances from the famous film are so deeply ingrained in our collective conscience here in the western world that the mere mention of "Gaaarrrrr! I'm a good girl, I am!" evokes instant feelings of warmth for a (fictional), rose-tinged past.

Bill English's production starts out by making a bold statement against nostalgic views of Lerner and Loewe's beloved musical: The director's vision of Eliza's world is pretty dark. The actors playing working-class characters show up on stage in the opening scenes with their faces besmirched with dirt. The titular flower girl wears pants. "All I want is a room somewhere" is performed like a fight song, with Monique Hafen's Eliza singing while brandishing a shiv. But before too long, the production, which is entertaining if slightly rhythmically uneven, resorts to more well-worn staging concepts. Sometimes, as is the case with the scene at the Ascot Races, the mise-en-scene appears to explicitly recall the movie.

Liesl Tommy's production of Hamlet at Cal Shakes seems to set out to make a statement about memory. The production takes place in and around a neglected swimming pool, perhaps several months or even a few years after a big blow-out party has taken place. Various "remembrances" are scattered about, from the dried flowers of Ophelia's funeral to Yorick's skull. The most interesting conceit of the production, which otherwise feels insubstantial, noisy and gimmicky, is the idea of having Horatio (Nick Gabriel) as a sort of omnipresent witness to all of the events on stage. Horatio has the opening line of this production, beckoning us to listen to the story, and then floats about in almost all the scenes, quietly observing the denouement.

The problem with treating Hamlet as a nostalgia piece is that it tends to distance us from the immediacy of the events and the dramatic strength of the characters. Everything is parsed through Horatio's memory in Tommy's conception of the play. But because memories are by their nature faulty things, the vision feels incoherent and the stakes don't feel high. We are left with a weird combination of the flotsam and jetsam of ideas and objects that we popularly associate with Hamlet, mixed up with things that appear to intrude on that vision, like machine gun-toting courtiers and a recording of the Fleetwoods' bittersweet a cappella rendition of "Unchained Melody". The place of this song in the production is as much of a source of confusion as Leroy McClain's Hamlet putting a question mark on his final proclamation -- "the rest is silence".

The Legion of Honor's exhibition about Lee Miller and Man Ray focuses on the relationship between these two seminal figures in twentieth century photographic history. Ray and Miller shared a long and intimate history, one rife with memories and nostalgia. One of the most interesting rooms in the show is devoted to Man's attempts to work through his loss of Miller after they split up as a couple. The former model-turned-war-photographer's lips, suspended above a bucolic landscape in a famous Man Ray painting (see above) are a focal point of the exhibition. You can even buy gold Miller lip brooches and magnets in the museum gift shop.

On the other hand, Miller's use of the camera to create memories reigns a lot of the nostalgia in. Her portraits of dead German soldiers and functionaries at the end of the Second World War are eerie and unflinching. Even Miller's depictions of quotidian life treat memory in an unsentimental way. One of my favorite images of Miller's depicts the glass door of a high-end jewelry emporium all scratched up by the well-heeled clientele who accidentally scrape the door with their diamond rings when pushing the handle to get inside. This image for me sums up the photographer's view of the past: While the present moment depicted in the photograph is quite literally inscribed with the memory of countless people who've passed through the jewelry store's door, the memory is anonymous, unconscious and completely lacking in nostalgia.

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