Diversity in Motion: Hamlet 90 and Sheila B

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  • Niki Hatzidis

Sheila Bandyopadhyay (Sheila B artistically) is the devisor, movement specialist, and mastermind behind the 90 minute adaptation of Hamlet which premiered at The Brick in early August.  The story starts with the death of King Hamlet, uses all of Shakespeare’s language, but is executed through music, movement and intricate physicality in a culturally diverse world.  Diversity makes a clear statement on stage and it’s a personal one for Sheila.  “I am a first generation South Asian on my fathers side. My mother’s family is a mix of Russian Jewish and Irish Catholic.  I feel that as theater artists we should show the world as it really is and how it can be.”

Hamlet 90 epitomizes what theater and art should look like, and what an inclusive world does look like.  Sheila explains her personal mission as an artist when presenting new work, “a diverse group of actors from all over the world working together in a seamless ensemble.  We can do that as a world too, so for me it is a way of making a political statement without being a politician.”  The casting included actors of color, a female Hamlet of Lebanese decent, and actors form Pakistan, Italy, and the UK.  Hearing a famous, English text spoken by so many accents was jarring and refreshing. It made you really listen to the words you’ve heard time and time again. The visual of multicultural storytelling only added to this new vision of the well-known play.

Sheila decided to undertake this projected read Dominic Dromgoole’s book Globe to Globe.  “I was inspired when he talked about the early short versions of Hamlet which started touring almost immediately after the play was first written,”  Sheila said, “I first cut the play back in December 2018 for a production I directed with the students at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts.”  Sheila is a movement instructor at the AADA and collaborated with students she had worked with there in order to develop a specific physical aesthetic.  “I cut the play with specific kinds of movement/physical story telling in mind - so the cut reflects the things I plan to do physically rather than with text,” Sheila explained.

The work and attention to physical specificity shows, especially in the performances of

Jake Rose and Alexia Hartman.  Rose played both the parts of Guildenstern and Laertes opposite Hartman’s Rosencrantz and Ophelia.  The two expertly shifted from siblings to the comedic duo seamlessly, so clearly and effectively, that should they have not changed costume at all, you would still be able to identify exactly which character they were playing.  The ensemble moved together cohesively, evident especially when they worked together with movement and flashlights to heighten the ghoulish depiction of King Hamlet’s ghost played by Jeffery Marc Alkins.

Shadia Martin (Hamlet) is so in tune with her body, physicality and with language that her touching recitation of the “To Be or not to Be” speech felt as if I was hearing it for the very first time.  Each word and emotion was hit so specifically that it could only be accomplished by someone completely connected to their craft.  Alexia Hartmen effectively uses gesture in her portrayal of Ophelia’s mental breakdown toward the end of the play.  She continuously shoves her fingers down her throat in between her heartbreaking speech, making her demise both beautifully, devastating and grotesque.

Sheila also plays gender fluid characters adding very interesting elements to the story.  “I deliberately wanted to play with gender & gender pronouns in this show.  The younger generation (Hamlet, Horatio, etc) have more fluid concepts of gender, while the older generation was more traditionally minded,” Sheila told me.  “I wanted to tell the story of a female Hamlet (played by a young woman of color) who’s rightful place as King of his country is usurped by a older man of questionable behavior.”  Telling the story of a women losing her power to a man gives Hamlet a very different political connotation. This is the intention, Sheila says, “the anxiety and madness of the world of the play is induced by the fact that Claudius takes what he shouldn’t have.  That psychological aspect runs through the play, and errupts in all the characters - particularly in Ophelia. This seems incredibly relevant to me with what we have experienced the last few years in the US.” 

Changing the gender of other characters gives them different intentions and morality too. Where Polonius, in the original text, might be depicted as an embarrassing father figure, in Anna Snapp’s depiction, she is a very reasonable and caring mother.  Horatio played by Skylar Fray, appears even more grounded and logical too.

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Music and poetry is its own character in Hamlet 90 as Sheila’s desired aesthetic of a "Rock'n'Roll Shakespeare" is achieved by live music on the stage.  All the actors are singers and musicians too, more purposefully Martin is a poet and guitarist.  “This was important to me as I see Hamlet as sensitive artistic type, caught in a world of political upheaval and uncertainty,’ Sheila explained, “He isn't really made for that world, and his clearest act is rewriting (and essentially directing) the Players into the play within a play. Hamlet is more at home in a theater or a coffeehouse than the palace, but unlike us he doesn't have the option to just "make art" about the political landscape he finds himself in.”  It is powerful in the way Hamlet is forced into the more violent acts of the play.  “He must act, and his reluctance to do so can only be seen as his struggle to reconcile himself to the world in which he lives.  For me this has a great deal of resonance to our American political dramas and the way in which I, as an artist, feel about my role as citizen.”

Sheila B has many more exciting productions coming up.  She will be directing Anna

Snapp’s solo show, I Found That the Sun will Rise Tomorrow, which is a part of the United Solo Fringe in October.  She will also have another performance of her original concert play Rise/Fall in November through a residency at the Balance Arts Center, and starting development a new piece about women, art and madness. She is an artist to be reckoned with and one to certainly look out for.

Niki Hatzidis is an actor and award nominated playwright based in NYC.

NikiHatzidis.com