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Modern Hamlet is more like "Hamlet the experience"


Directed by Eric Ronis.

The Common/wealth Theater


Starring Nick Lawrence,

Kristen Gasser, and Eliza Gagnon.

At the Charlestown Working Theater.

Continues through Oct. 14.


THIS PRODUCTION IS BY NO MEANS an introductory Hamlet. Unless you are familiar with the play -- and by "familiar," I mean having read or seen the play at least twice -- I suspect you would lose the story very rapidly at this presentation. It is not so much "Hamlet the play" as "Hamlet the experience." There is scene rearrangement, an audience participation prologue, some very minor text additions, some quadrupling up of parts, and more. Generally, very confusing . . . unless you know Hamlet, in which case the "show," as it is called in the program, is very enjoyable.

Before the start of the play, the audience is asked to participate in "the statement game." Here the nine actors in the production fire statements at the audience ranging from "The soul of Hamlet's tragedy is his inability to act," to "The soul of Hamlet's tragedy is that he is fat," and then ask who agrees and disagrees. The point of this exercise becomes clear in the epilogue, when fragments of the statements are repeated, and you are presumably meant to reconsider your initial assurances in light of the unusual interpretation you have just seen.

The size of the company dictates that all actors must enter into more than one role (yes, even Hamlet, if only for five minutes in the entire production) and also that Rosencrantz, Horatio, and Polonius be transformed into women for the play. Neither of these points detract from the production, and the latter actually contributes very positively by presenting some new and interesting possibilities (e.g., Hamlet flirting with Horatio!). Furthermore, the play is set in a modern time period. This usually makes Shakespearean purists anxious; often, it translates as "the company hadn't the skill/couldn't be bothered to deal with Elizabethan affectations."

Here, however, the modernity has been used constructively. Colloquial gestures, props, and costumes transform, among others, Polonius into a politic female executive, Ophelia into a sweet-sixteen teenager, Marcellus into a burnt-out hippie. This all sums up to present characters that are easier to empathize with than the standard Elizabethans, thus adding to the play's impact.

Modern music is used frequently to express, sometimes too blatantly, the director's interpretation of character. For example, the dumbshow before "The Murder of Gonzago" concentrates on "Gertrude," portraying her as a supreme succubus at the center of Elsinore's rot. The scene is set to Queen's "Killer Queen." It is interesting, however, to see this device used.

The final unusual aspect of this production was the drastic scene rearrangement. The play is presented in three parts: "Hamlet's Story," "Ophelia's Story," and "The Rest is Silence." Scenes involving Ophelia are grouped together in the second part, although some are in part one as well. This creates a situation where the discontinuity leaves you feeling afterwards as if you have been immersed in the entire play at once.

Characterizations are clear, strong, and consistent, with Hamlet (Nick Lawrence) and Polonius (Eliza Gagnon) being the most outstanding (although I have never seen a bad Polonius).

Similarly, the director has made quite clear his opinions on certain crucial questions within Hamlet. These are, on occasion, conflicting. For instance, Hamlet is presented to us as a group of fluttering and dark spirits, suggesting the interpretation of the play in which nothing "is rotten in the state of Denmark" but that the devil himself causes "thinking to make it so." Yet at the same time, Gertrude is portrayed as having rather a bit more to do with her husband's death than is conventionally accepted. These two views are obviously opposed.

On the other hand, these interpretations are new and thought provoking, as in the case of explaining Ophelia's breakdown by having her see Hamlet with Polonius' body. Watch, too, for the book she is reading in the scene when she returns Hamlet's letters.

The show's momentum is excellent. The first part is almost comic, but with a jolt at its conclusion, leaps into the sinister with Ophelia (Kristen Gasser) silently appealing to all the lead characters for sympathy as they, unheeding, dance to Billy Idol's "Dancing with Myself." The second part continues in this sinister vein, emphasized by a change in stage orientation which presents a disconcerting perspective. The play hurtles on to the depths of the final tragic scene, only to be relieved at the last minute by the superbly characterized Fortinbras (Xian Kanuth).

All told, this is a very unusual presentation of Hamlet, and might be worth seeing simply for that. However, it is also competently directed and acted as well as innovative and enjoyable, even if some minor parts may go too far (certain small text additions at the beginning of part two may irritate you). If you enjoy Shakespeare, and Hamlet in particular, you will find this a refreshing experience.