In the year they have been performing, the coalition of writers, actors and technicians that make up the Evaporated Milk Society have been determined to turn theatrical productions, and the way they are viewed, in a new direction. After mounting some original works including the outdoor version of "A Tall Tale" that featured actors on stilts the company is attempting a new version of William Shakespeare's "Hamlet."
And while they may follow the text more than in past performances, everything else about the show will have the EMS stamp of experimental theatre proudly marked all over the staged product.
"As a performer and a director, I've worked with deprivileged texts," Director Randall Cohn days. "For 'A Tall Tale,' the script was the least important part of the production. It was there to fill in space. So a return to the play's text was a big decision. I decided to use the most titanic, known, referenced and overproduced play I could find. So we're doing 'Hamlet.'"
Cohn's basic thesis is that actors and audiences have been programmed to view acting, and the actor's performance, in rigid tunnel-vision that allows for little creativity. And he's out to challenge both his cast members and anyone who ventures in to watch one of his performances.
"I'm not interested in the performance theory in terms of the actor creating the character" he says, "because that breeds indulgent performances where the actor is only interested in what it does to his own psyche, instead of how it looks to others.
"There are more possible ways to experience theater. We want the actors to be engaged differently, and we want the audience to understand differently, rather than just being invested in the emotional journey of the characters."
So EMS is sticking more to the printed page, out of deference to Shakespeare's writing prowess, but that doesn't mean they aren't tinkering around with the script.
"There is a lot of bad Shakespeare out there," Cohn says. "His work is so overbearingly good, rich and different that you need fantastic actors to do it, and many productions don't have them. It makes the play a challenge. In addition, most people have their favorite memories of Laurence Olivier or Mel Gibson or Ethan Hawke or their old high school English teacher performing it, so it makes for really rich goop to work with."
Audiences can expect some changes, though, because even if they are not altering the intertextual narrative, the cast has no qualms about adding to the play in other ways, and in subtracting from it. Cohn has edited out about half of the material, cutting the running time to an hour-and-half, while also adding three original music numbers.
And though they also are using a regular three-quarter thrust stage, the technical side of the show relies heavily on original interpretation. Audiences can expect actors to play their scenes on and off the stage. And their costumes and scenery, co-created by Cohn and scene designer Spencer Musser, are not specific to a certain time period.
"Spencer has been doing a graffiti-type work in the space," Cohn says. "And the costumes and props resonate with what the actors are doing, so it's not literal stuff."
The space being painted is the company's new performance digs located in The New Fahrenheit Gallery space at 1717 W. Ninth Street in the West Bottoms. Cohn encourages potential audience members to visit his Web site, www.evaporatedmilk.org, because it has a link to Mapquest to help guide viewers to the auditorium.
Though it may be a challenge to steer viewers to the theater, the biggest challenge still remains performing one of Shakespeare's most lauded works. And Cohn's cast has upped the ante. In his version, the eight performers will play all the parts, including each one taking a turn at Hamlet.
"Everyone plays about everyone else," Cohn says. "I told them I wanted every actor to say on their rsum that they had played Hamlet."