Sep 072017

This exciting look at Shakespeare’s tragedy is a decidedly gothic affair.

The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark by William Shakespeare. Directed by Kyler Taustin. Staged by Brown Box Theatre Project. The company’s Massachusetts season has ended; productions of Hamlet are now being presented in the Delmarva Peninsula, in Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia, through September 23. See website for dates and specific locations.

A scene from the Brown Box Theatre Project's staging of "Hamlet." Photo: Nile Scott Shots

Jessie Garlick (Hamlet) and Gigi Watson (Ophelia) in the Brown Box Theatre Project’s staging of “Hamlet.” Photo: Nile Scott Shots

By Ian Thal

In his introduction to Hamlet: Globe to Globe: Two Years, 190,000 Miles, 197 Countries, One Play, Dominic Dromgoole notes that:

Translated into too many languages to count, and performed more times than Shakespeare ate hot dinners, and cold ones, or drew breath for that matter, Hamlet is one of those rare documents that can be said to have brought the world closer together. Audiences all over the planet have shared in its capacity to enlarge the spectator’s openness and desire to question.

Of course, artists pride themselves on their openness to this text, and that sense of possibility has been reflected in their myriad approaches to the play. Last year, Boston audiences has a chance to see fine examples of both a political Hamlet and a meta-theatrical Hamlet. Brown Box Theatre Project’s Hamlet just finished up its tour of Massachusetts and is now being presented through the Delmarva Peninsula, with shows in Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia. This look at the tragedy is a decidedly gothic affair.

By “gothic” I do not only mean a costuming aesthetic that concentrates on black formal wear, or the black stage, or the atonality of the sound design (though all these things are prominent), but its focus on treating the plot as a supernatural crime story, emphasizing its themes of madness and moral corruption, particularly its pairing of Eros and Thanatos.

This noir-ish approach works well with a company that proffers a predominately young cast. It also means less attention to other aspects of the play, and that brings about the staging’s shortcomings: Cam Torres’ Claudius may orate like a politician — even when considering the state of his soul and its fate in the afterlife — but there is very little sense of whether or not he (or Jade Guerra’s dignified Gertrude) are competent heads of state, regardless of their moral sins.

Jesse Garlick does not seem to find his bearings as Hamlet until the anti-hero encounters the ghost of his murdered father. Once he meets Daddy, his Hamlet is supremely gothic – self-absorbed, obsessed with everyone’s sins and lacking any concern for affairs of state, even as Elsinore’s other denizens, from King Claudius down to a simple sentry like Marcellus (Margaret Clark), are consumed with public affairs. Garlick gives us a petulant, narcissistic, and self-destructive Prince, a man largely unconcerned about the collateral damage he leaves in his wake. In fact, one virtue of this production is how much it underlines Hamlet’s deep misogyny.

Emily Elmore and Nick Osbourne make for an enjoyable Rosencrantz and Guildenstern – they invest the roles with such tragic-comic depth that you might conjecture that they are spending their time off-stage time running through Tom Stoppard’s 1966 play.

Spencer Parli Tew provides strong performances in a number of roles. Initially, he’s the grave ghost of King Hamlet; later he’s a nimble Player King, an actor who is well aware of the value of timing (when to take the stage and when to exit). Margaret Clark is a perfect foil for Tew as the Player Queen as well as being a wittily morbid Gravedigger.

Youthful talent this cast has aplenty. The problem is a dearth of gravitas the kind that it takes even skillful actors decades to develop. A case in point is James Weschler’s Polonius. The actor’s clownish movements and warbling voice springs from a young person’s idea of a tedious old fool; the character comes across as a nebbishy comic-relief sidekick from a teen comedy. The Polonius is not plausible as the father of Ophelia (Gigi Watson) and Laertes (Felix Teich). Neither does he come across as capable yet eccentric political political operative or as a once formidable man now entering his dotage. It would be interesting to see Weschler revisit the role in twenty years, once he as more experience under his belt. Watson serves up  a particularly charismatic and witty Ophelia – whether she is mocking her brother’s hypocritical concern over her chastity or her father’s sage advice to her brother. And then there is the actress’s understated expression of sarcastic rage at Hamlet’s efforts to torment her. This vitality makes the character’s descent into madness particularly tragic — we see what a brilliant woman the world has lost.

Taustin’s set is (understandably) a spartan affair; it has to be struck and moved on an almost daily basis. The staircase that dominates the visuals is an effective theatrical idea. It puts the actors on different levels;  it becomes dynamic when a character places a foot on a different step. Certain scenes, such as the emergence of the ghost on the castle walls, become unusually memorable.

The fight choreography by Ben Heath (who also plays Horatio) is spectacular. What’s particularly inspired is the choice of of curved-bladed sabres for the duel between Hamlet and Laertes (rather than the straight-bladed swords commonly used.) These weapons demand an alternative style of fighting – different stances, different swings, and different parries. The arcs the blades trace are beautiful to watch, but when metal strikes metal we are snapped back to their lethal purpose. Heath also has some battle ready performers — particularly Jesse Garlick and Felix Teich — who move the narrative forward with the promise of a thrilling physical confrontation to come.

Elizabeth Cahill’s sound design uses droning/dissonant chords that embrace (or at least tolerate) the ambient sounds of the surrounding environment. (On the night I attended, the sonics included sirens and the periodic rumble of the Orange Line as it crossed the Mystic River). Chelsea Kerl’s costumes alternately draw inspiration from Goth night at the local club and standard medieval stage garb. The most inspired costume is Ophelia’s – a simple black gown whose lower skirt is embellished with huge blue blossoms of fabric. The outfit foreshadows her descent into madness and a watery death.

The bottom line: Brown Box Theatre Project’s Hamlet is far from definitive, but it is spirited and often exciting. No doubt the groundlings at Shakespeare’s Globe would have relished the sabres — and the Bard, with his box office savvy, would probably have no objection to having his action sequences pop.

Ian Thal is a playwright, performer, and theater educator specializing in mime, commedia dell’arte, and puppetry, and has been known to act on Boston area stages from time to time, sometimes with Teatro delle Maschere. He has performed his one-man show, Arlecchino Am Ravenous, in numerous venues in Massachusetts and Rhode Island. One of his as-of-yet unproduced full-length plays was picketed by a Hamas supporter during a staged reading. He is looking for a home for his latest play, The Conversos of Venice, which is a thematic deconstruction of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. Formerly the community editor at The Jewish Advocate, he blogs irregularly at the unimaginatively entitled The Journals of Ian Thal, and writes the “Nothing But Trouble” column for The Clyde Fitch Report


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