In this innovative production, Hamlet comes off as Shakespeare’s most successful genre mash-up of tragedy and comedy.
Hamlet by William Shakespeare. Directed by Doug Lockwood. Presented by Actors’ Shakespeare Project at The Church of the Covenant, Boston, MA through November 6.
By Ian Thal
Ironically, Shakespeare’s formidable reputation as an iconic genius of English literature often overshadows any serious discussion of the nature of that genius. This reluctance to question superlatives increases when dealing with such masterworks as Hamlet. But why not tip over a sacred cow once in a while?
The Doug Lockwood–directed production, presented by Actors’ Shakespeare Project, takes the refreshing step of deconstructing much of what we think we know about the play, then reconstructing Hamlet in order to give us a taste of what made it so innovative in its time. In the process, the staging hints at why we keep returning to the play. The line of attack: an examination of Shakespeare’s poetry, whether in his sonnets or soliloquies, suggests that his was an intellect that embraced self-contradiction. (That “to be or not to be” is an oft-quoted cliché is perhaps an acknowledgment of this.) Lockwood and company apply this idea to Hamlet: it is not merely a play that contains opposites in its poetry, but one that marries contraries in its very structure; it is, to use a term from our time, the Bard’s most successful genre mash-up of tragedy and comedy.
Practically speaking, this means that Lockwood does not subordinate the script’s comedy to its tragedy but forces the audience to experience the violent contradiction. Richard Snee’s Polonius seems to have accepted his role as a helpful dottore in a romantic comedy. Meanwhile, Claudius, as played by Ross Macdonald, is a “tragic” hero who knows he has secured his crown, his brother’s widow, and possibly the security of his nation at the expense of his immortal soul, the apparent sanity of his nephew and heir, and the life of a loyal friend. Marianna Bassham’s Gertrude echoes the histrionics of Queen Jocasta in Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannis. (Freud, another thinker fascinated by the unity of opposites, noted the relationship between the two plays.) She discovers that her newfound happiness with her second husband is rooted in the crime of murder and the sin (as alleged by her zealous son) of incest. Each of these characters is mistaken in terms of the roles that they choose to play: they think they are inhabiting a part in one genre, when the story they are in is far more chimeric and fluid. Even the assassination plot at the end has the overly intricate planning of a comedy — getting your genre wrong can get you killed.
In the role of Hamlet, a production of this sort demands an actor capable of pivoting from tragic intensity to clowning mid-speech – in short, it demands Omar Robinson. His growing mastery of craft has been evident in his previous roles, and it is now on full display. Robinson’s performance makes the most of Lockwood’s central conceit — that Hamlet is well aware he is a character in a play. Whether he is jesting, mocking, dueling, or severing the bonds of love and friendship, this Hamlet accepts his fate, knowing that he will bite the dust the same way the following night and the night after that in an eternal recurrence. The effect is both metaphysical and metatextual, which is appropriate for a magnificently twisted narrative that contains ghosts and a play — really several — within the play. It is no accident that Lockwood has Hamlet speaking part of his death speech to Horatio at the very beginning of the evening. The stale old chestnut — taught in high school English classes and trumpeted in Laurence Olivier’s film version — that the Prince of Denmark is indecisive is put to rest.
Lockwood’s conception of Hamlet’s supreme self-awareness is replicated in a self-aware staging – when actors are not in a scene they are often seen sitting passively still on the stage, almost melting into the scenery (often tucking themselves into the recessed thrones in the Church of the Covenant’s woodwork, languishing like marionettes on hangers). What distinguishes them from Hamlet, to paraphrase Alan Moore’s Watchmen, is that “they’re all puppets, Hamlet’s just a puppet who can see the strings.”
Though Robinson’s Hamlet is the center of this production, the rest of the cast is uniformly excellent – providing performances that are visual and sculptural as well as verbal and emotive. With few costume changes beyond the donning of masks during the “mousetrap” playlet, the actors take on multiple roles and distinguish their characters through posture and stylized body language. (Bassham’s on-stage transformation from Gertrude to the Gravedigger is amazing.) Likewise, one only has to watch the way Peter G. Andersen and Alexander Platt step into a scene to immediately discern whether they are playing Horatio and Laertes or Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Poornima Kirby, in what is perhaps the most naturalistic performance in this production, is an intelligent and vivacious Ophelia when we first meet her, which makes her abusive gaslighting by Hamlet and descent into madness more painful. Rory Boyd, as the Player King, is (not surprisingly) called upon to display the most flamboyant physicality.
The choice of staging the play in the sanctuary of the Church of the Covenant, an exemplar of the Gothic Revival style (the building is designated a National Historic Landmark), is particularly inspired. The only drawback in terms of the staging is that, on occasion, some of the action – in particular the duel in Act V choreographed by Ted Hewlett – is not fully visible from all the pews. However, the sheer volume of the space creates an immersive experience because the blocking can (from time to time) extend far down the aisles. The room’s acoustic powers are predictively impressive, particularly the resonance it gives the lines from the “What a piece of work is a man!” speech, especially when one considers that this Hamlet is acutely aware of our presence:
This most excellent canopy the air, look you, this brave o’er hanging firmament, this majestical roof, fretted with golden fire: why, it appeareth no other thing to me, than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours.
Deb Sullivan’s lighting design combines standard theatrical elements as well as the sanctuary’s own lighting to emphasize the narrative’s ghost-story: she makes deft use of an extraordinary stained glass chandelier, as well as candles, to evoke a rich palette of colors, textures, and chiaroscuro from the tile mosaics, chiseled stone, carved wood, and painted surfaces. Jessica Pribble dresses the cast in period costumes. Particularly memorable: the multilayered velvet robes of Claudius and Gertrude and the green jerkin with laced sleeves worn by Laertes/Guildenstern.
This past summer, Boston-area fans of the Prince of Denmark were already fortunate with Apollinaire Theatre Company’s compelling outdoor production. But with this mind-expanding staging of Hamlet, the ASP is offering up a very different, and quite extraordinary, version of Shakespeare’s “sweet prince.”
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.