Monday, July 2, 2012

Hamlet's Sterile Promontory

Do you hear, let them be well used; for
they are the abstract and brief chronicles of the
time - Hamlet

Review of The Shakespeare Forum's Hamlet, at Theater for the New City, June 21-July 1. It would be disingenuous of me not to say, at the outset, that not only am I acquainted with most of the members of this production, but that I call many of them friends. However, I am in earnest when I say I think that only slightly influences my objectivity.

Tyler Moss and Pat Dwyer
 as Hamlet and Ghost

A young man stands center stage and looks calmly out at us. He smiles and says nothing. He is quietly satisfied with himself, with us, with the world. His friend approaches, a folded letter in his hand. As Hamlet silently reads the letter, we see his mother and his uncle, behind him and in another space, reading the same letter. The young man falls to the floor, a wretch in silent agony and shock. His world has ended. The play has begun.

This is a fairly naked Hamlet, as productions go. If you're looking for a fancy light show, smoke and mirrors, a trap door or two, this is not your Hamlet. The set design is fairly simple: a rectangle of empty space, gold painted chairs with red cushions, hanging white scrims. A dagger. A love note on blue paper. Letters in black envelopes. A burlap sack of skulls. But that very nakedness, the spareness, is perhaps this Hamlet's greatest asset. The text, though pared down, has never breathed so freely. This is perhaps the most honest Hamlet I have seen in years.

Which is not to say no one lies. The characters spend half their lives dancing around the truth, a tragedy made all the clearer here by how honest the performers are. Most Hamlets have a strong leading man (God help those that don't), but this is all too often at the expense of the rest of the characters. Not here. I believed these people in their joys, their agonies, their lies, their confusions. I believed the loving, indulgent family of Polonius and his two children. I believed the conflicted passion of Gertrude and Claudius, and the simple bewilderment of the faithful Ophelia. I believed the growing frustration of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, two throwaway characters, the more Hamlet taunts them. I believed Horatio's loyal confusion, even as he stands silently by. And I believed, as Hamlet stands weeping in his mother's room, that what he wants most is his father, alive again, loving him. All this was clear.

This clarity extended to the language with such completeness that it felt effortless. They did not struggle to drop into the heightened language, and so neither did the audience. The comfort was such that lines could be thrown away, as in general dialogue, not every word a precious gem. This, too, felt honest and naked, and yielded moments of epiphany, things I'd never heard in a play I thought I knew well - moments as simple as the Ghost providing Hamlet with the dagger he will carry the rest of the play, or as large as the play-within-a-play's dumb show resemble more an alternative rock hypnotic possession than a detached performance.

The temptation now is to describe in detail every powerful moment, every particle that makes this production unique, every surprising moment of humor, every heartbreaking actor on stage. The temptation is strong, because this ensemble is wonderful, clearly all working together under the intelligent discerning voice of its director, Sybille Bruun Moss.

Instead I will talk about what unifies this ensemble. I've written before that one of The Shakespeare Forum's greatest gifts is encouraging actors to embrace their own uniqueness, to make their interpretation of a role or text grow from their specific vantage, voice, and skill set. That is also one of the strengths of this production, and is what makes it uniquely the voice of The Shakespeare Forum. No one on that stage is attempting to fit himself into the perceived shapes of these well-known characters. They are simply being - honest and naked - these people, saying these words, experiencing these moments.

I said earlier that if you go in with certain high-production expectations, this might not be your Hamlet. But in its honest, open heart, it felt, peculiarly, as if it were mine.


Including this as a post-script, since I couldn't find a place for it above: This is the kind of production that is simultaneously humbling and ennobling.  Ennobling because it reminds me of how powerful theater can be - that it's not just pretenders in silly outfits strutting and fretting away two hours of our life, but something emotionally vital to existence, a communication that cannot be replicated in another setting, a conversation that cannot be had in a pub, in a cinema, or behind a podium. Humbing because I can only aspire to having the level of talent necessary to merit my place in the profession myself.

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