Corrections or additions?

This review was prepared by Simon Saltzman for the May 18, 2005

issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Review: ‘Hamlet’ at McCarter

Hamlet is certainly the most famous Dane in all dramatic literature,

but he hasn’t been seen brooding around McCarter Theater since film

and TV star Harry Hamlin played him (most charismatically) in 1982 in

a highly romanticized staging by McCarter’s former artistic director

Nagle Jackson.

Long before that and continuing to the present, Shakespeare’s Hamlet

has been edited, sliced, diced, and chiseled to fit either an actor or

a director’s vision, as well as being subjected to any number of

scholarly investigations. As we can see in Daniel Fish’s significantly

reduced (a cast of eight) but not diminished staging, which opened in

McCarter’s Berlind Theater last week, rottenness in Denmark, after

all, needn’t be determined by size and numbers nor confined to any

century as long as there’s a royal family around, traditional or not,

willing to act rotten.

For his brave and untraditional staging of this play, Fish boldly

relies on a revisionist’s prerogative and a conceptualizer’s conceit

to revisit a well-known classic. It is good to report that he takes

great liberties with the text and the temperaments but also keeps

faith with the eternally puzzling undercurrents that permeate this

tragedy. The production that Fish has conceived strips the play down

to its bare bones, including a Hamlet who strips down to his birthday

suit. This we may assume is to presumably expose the essence of his

nature and the essentials of the plot itself for audiences who might

be either too familiar with the play or too comfortably in awe of

Shakespeare.

Give the audience the raw blank verse and prose but take away the

atmospherics (save a portable smoke machine, an old phonograph, and

some jazz recordings), and any illusion of time or place, and you can

still say you have saved the best of that which propels Hamlet through

his ordeals. Surprisingly, Fish’s notion to evade the antiquity of the

play by placing it an abstracted space works remarkably well. At the

very least, for those who are willing to take a quantum leap out of

traditional Denmark and avoid the political aspects, the play has been

narrowed down to a royal family drowning in mayhem, madness, and

tragedy. With an especially convincing and clear-headed Hamlet (Rob

Campbell), Fish empowers a stunningly uncluttered production. And

despite the actors being called upon to play more than one role, their

changing characters are always vivid but more importantly

psychologically validated.

The company of actors, dressed in contemporary casual clothing

(wittily designed by Kaye Voyce), are first seen seated at two long

metal tables, except for Hamlet, who sits with his back to us on a

chair removed from the others. The play begins as the specter of

Hamlet’s murdered father (played by Michael Emerson, who also plays

Hamlet’s uncle Claudius, as well as Osric) upsets the gathering as a

poltergeist might by overturning the tables. Having Claudius and the

specter played by the same actor is an insightful device that suggests

Claudius is possessed by the dead king. Other startling touches

include a casually considered parlor meeting between Hamlet and the

cigar-smoking specter; Hamlet’s written declaration of love for

Ophelia fully exposed on her bare back; Polonius consulting with

Hamlet while the prince is sitting on the toilet reading a newspaper;

and an ensemble of young boys who appear to Hamlet as a vision of

those destined for war. There are more arresting moments that I will

leave for you to discover.

If this neo-modernist approach is designed to suit American

sensibilities, then will Campbell’s disposition corroborate his

substitutions of nobility for petulance, melancholia for cynical

aggressiveness, and willfulness for ambiguity? Sure. Why not? The

perennial wonder of Hamlet is that it gives the actor, as well as the

director, choices. All variables, except the loss of nobility, are

welcome as long as they are eventually rooted in credibility. Perhaps

Campbell has not yet wrapped up all the loose ends, but it is fun to

watch this creative artist, as well as all the other artists involved,

work through the maze.

This expressionistic consideration is, even if it doesn’t please the

purists, refreshing in its inventions. Both Campbell and Fish seem to

be in agreement that it is Hamlet the actor/provoker not Hamlet the

poet/procrastinator who is to be the key to the mystery. Flecked with

mockery and innuendo, Campbell’s Hamlet is more a prince of players

than a prince of Denmark. It is certainly easy to accept Hamlet’s

defect – his slowness to act – given Campbell’s playful wallowing in

the intrigue that will ultimately lead him and those around him to

tragedy. But his Hamlet is a born detective. Some may miss the terror

in Hamlet’s confrontation with the specter and the pain in his

disillusionment with Ophelia, as well as with Rosencrantz and

Guildenstern. But his mental confusion in general is, under the

idiosyncratic circumstances, easily accepted. Here is a schematic, but

never morbid, Hamlet.

Campbell gives both the welcome and the address to the players, in

this case only one player played with insinuating insouciance by Frank

Wood, who is consigned to wryly initiate the famous "To be, or not to

be" speech. If the other more introspective soliloquies don’t have the

ring of insightful brilliance, they have more than a ring of

explorative honesty. It is only with Hamlet’s death, a scene that

fails to register despite an unexpected twist, that the pain and the

realization of his course of action fail to grip.

Fish’s staging is exceptionally fluid given his own self-imposed

restrictions. Weaving his players through designer John Conklin’s

spare, open setting, Fish relies solely on the ingenuity of his actors

to convince us that they are making the journey from battlement to

castle rooms and churchyard. The duel scene is brief but to the point

(no pun intended). There is also the expected lightness to be found

watching David Margulies, as Polonius (who also plays a gravedigger),

give his dull advice to his son, Laertes (played with vigor by Jesse

J. Perez). Polonius’ death is a jaw-dropper that I won’t spoil for

you.

Wearing a bumble-bee striped cardigan and prone to taking a running

leap into the arms of the nearest man, Carrie Preston is excellent as

Ophelia, a volatile bundle of conflicted emotions. I was also

appreciative of Haynes Thigpen’s appealing Horatio, and once again

Emerson, at his most flamboyant, as that "waterfly" Osric. Like

Hamlet, Fish is to be praised for evidently giving to his small band

of players Shakespeare’s famous advice: "Speak the speech, I pray you,

as I pronounced it to you, trippingly on the tongue."

– Simon Saltzman

"Hamlet, through June 19, Berlind Theater at McCarter, 91

University Place. 609-258-2787 or www.mccarter.org.


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