Thomas Burns Scully
OnStage New York Critic
NEW YORK, NY - Germaine Greer once said “What’s the point of doing ‘Hamlet’?” It’s not like it hasn’t been done. It’s not like no-one’s ever gotten it right. Between Burbage and Cumberbatch there have been at least a dozen Hamlets you could list as all time greats. Why do we still bother? What is there left to add to a four hundred year old conversation? The New York Shakespeare Exchange thinks they have something. In a psuedo-Campbellian twist, they have presented Hamlet as a hero with ten faces. The ten actors that make up their company all perform Hamlet during the show, in some form or another. Their show is called ‘Hamlet10’, it’s currently playing at the Flamboyán Theater, and it may well be a decent answer to the question: “What’s the point of doing ‘Hamlet’?”
It has become tradition in my reviews of Shakespeare productions to flippantly refuse to explain the plots to his better known plays. This review is no exception. So, if for some reason you are not familiar with the plot of ‘Hamlet’, open the window closest to you and yell at the nearest group of passing strangers. One of them will be able to tell you what happens. No, I’m not being childish, ‘Hamlet’ is one of the best known stories in the English language. The major change here in ‘Hamlet10’ is that ten actors, the whole company, take turns performing the titular role, in addition to the other role(s) assigned to them. This includes all the men and women of the cast, regardless of race, age, etc. No changes are made to the text itself. It makes for a very interesting interpretation.
Whenever I come in to a Shakespearean show like this, that flirts with the avant-garde, I am always nervous. I’ve been burned by pretension a good many times in the theatre, and I’d rather avoid it if possible. Luckily there was nothing to avoid here. The central concept of a multi-Hamlet is played just right, and manages to avoid being any kind of aggravating. Instead, after a little acclimatization, you find yourself completely drawn in to Hamlet’s deca-faceted nature, appreciating him in ways you may well not have done before. Director Ross Williams’ vision takes many forms, some as simple as having actors trade up roles midway through a scene, others as complex as turning Hamlet’s soliloquies in to a group discussion. Internal debate made external. One of his more scandalous choices has the actress who normally acts Ophelia performing Hamlet in the bedroom scene with Gertrude. It gives the scene an all-new salaciousness, on top of its already naturally unnerving salacity. The actors playing Hamlet are at once their regular characters, and the Danish Prince, creating the idea that Hamlet is not only himself, but all the people that surround him. Williams’ vision reeks enticingly of a fresh perspicacity, and could well be the subject for a damn fine academic paper on the character.
Williams could still have well ruined his own concept though, good as it is, if he had not hired such a strong pounce of actors. The cast here are uniformly strong, with a few memorable standouts, but a general unity of quality across the board. Harry Barandes has a quiet dignity as Horatio, and his marvelous baritone makes you want to listen to every word he says as Hamlet. Nathaniel P. Claridad has a wonderful comic sensibility that shines through in his turns as the Player King and the Grave Digger. Rebeca Miller’s work as Ophelia I have already said kind words about, but there’s no harm in adding a few more just here: she’s rather good. That said, a production of ‘Hamlet’ is only as good as the actor playing same. And I have already said that this is a very good show. Which in this case, means that the quality of the show must reflect back on every single actor that plays Hamlet. The strength of the ensemble as a unit is what gives this production its clout, and makes it worth your price of admission.
I would be remiss if I didn’t make a mention of the staging of the show. The show is performed in the round on a set of interlocking blocks designed by Jason Lajka. These are disassembled and reassembled throughout the show to create Denmark’s various locales. Like a Chinese puzzle box it appears superficially simple, but becomes more evolvingly complex as time reveals its inner working. Elivia Bovenzi’s costume design is also rather good. She adorns actors in leather jackets and coats that add a retro-coolness to the production, without slipping over in to a Matrix-esque leather-fetish. All nice to look at.
I will complain about one thing, briefly. The runtime. This production bills itself as being two and a half hours long, but in reality is closer to three. As much as I enjoyed it, I am an impatient young Millennial, and three hours is a long time to sit still, even with intermission. I don’t think people need to be quite so precious about cutting Shakespeare. I recently encountered a seventy-minute cut of ‘The Winter’s Tale’, and I think it’s one of the best versions of it I’ve seen. But, as I said, it would take a lot more than a prolonged runtime to ruin this show for me.
Ross Williams has created something impressive here with ‘Hamlet10’. What could easily have been a pretentious vanity project is instead a show full of insight, soul and genuine intelligence. His cast and creative team come together, both literally and figuratively, to create an excellent Hamlet. His bold staging works in every way that you would want it to, and raises new and interesting questions about everyone’s favorite sad Scandinavian schizophrenic. I can highly recommend it if you are in need of a Shakespeare fix. ‘Hamlet10’ stands on its own as a work of genuine creativity, intellect and impact. It is a more than fitting answer to the question: “What’s the point of doing ‘Hamlet’?”
‘Hamlet10’ performs from March 23 to April 9 on Wednesdays, Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 7:30pm, as well as Sundays at 3pm, except Sat March 26 when the show will be at 3pm, and Sunday March 27 (Easter), where there will be no show. Shows have been added Monday March 28 at 7:30pm (opening), and Tuesday April 5 at 7:30pm to compensate. Tickets to ‘Hamlet10’ which are $18, are available by phone by calling 917-428-0065, or online at shakespeareexchange.org.
This review was written by Thomas Burns Scully, a New York based writer, actor and musician. His work has been lauded by TimeOut NY, the New York Times, BAFTA US and other smaller organizations too numerous to mention. His writing has been performed on three continents. He is generally considered to be the thrifty person’s Renaissance man.
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