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Hamlet presents indecision with decisive craft

The MIT Shakespeare Ensemble.
Sala de Puerto Rico.
March 12-15 and 19-21, 8 p.m.

By Bilal Khan

Starting March 12, the Shakespeare Ensemble will be presenting Hamlet in the Sala de Puerto Rico. Under the direction of Kim Mancuso, the Ensemble has succeeded in putting together a masterful production that is unusual and risky in many ways.

The most eccentric feature of the play is the presence of two Hamlets and two Ophelias. The play begins with the entire cast standing on the unlit stage. The queen Gertrude tosses a coin, the outcome of which determines which Hamlet and which Ophelia appears that night. It is as though the cast has waited until the last possible moment to make their most important decision, and by then it is too late to exercise any will over the outcome. The decision is made for them, by the toss of a coin.

The space in which the performance takes place is crucial to its effectiveness. The stage is long and rectangular with nothing between the actors and the audience. The viewers sit along the lengths of this "passageway" stage. The actors, wearing suits and ties of symbolic color, live and speak from this two-sided stage.

The set for Hamlet is stark and minimalist, composed of abstract objects such as cylindrical pillars, beams, and blocks. On one side of the "passageway" stage are six identical pillars in a semicircular arrangement. Each of the pillars is perfect and untouched; the collective structure stands unhindered under a luminous sky.

Also ascending into the sky on this side are two incomplete staircases. Hamlet, Ophelia, Horatio, Laertes, and Fortinbras - members of the new order of truth seekers - inhabit this side of the stage.

On the other side of the stage is a similar structure, yet unlike its counterpart, it is fettered by angular cross-beams and appears knotted, uneven, and unstable. The sky is not visible on this side, because it is obscured by the dark facade of the Royal Palace of Denmark. Claudius, Gertrude, Polonius, Rosencrantz, and Guildenstern - members of the old order that now faces the results of its own corruption - inhabit this side of the stage.

The spatial configuration of the stage makes it is impossible for the audience to squeeze both sides into its field of view at any one instant. In the course of the play, the viewer must often choose between watching the old order disintegrate as it tries to maintain its intricate structure of lies, and watching the new order dissolve as it grapples with the horror of truth. Only when old and new collide in the center of the stage does the audience see both facets of reality at once. By using the space in this manner, the audience, like the cast and the characters, is forced to make decisions .

Despite the increased challenges posed by a two-sided stage and the last-minute decision about the casting of Hamlet and Ophelia, the actors work well together in an organic manner to produce authentic action. The difficult roles of Hamlet and Ophelia are well addressed by Ryun Yu '93/Christopher Crowley '88 and Andrea S. Leszek '93/Natalia Eliashberg '93. Their eventual regression into seeming madness is portrayed with remarkable conviction. It is commendable that this stylized performance, extremely angst-filled at times, manages to avoid overstatement and melodrama. Humor is also remarkably prevalent throughout the three-hour performance. Polonius never loses his ability to induce laughter in the audience, (especially when he decides to lecture his children). Similarly, Laertes is always overwhelmingly charming in his dealings with his sister Ophelia. Some members of the cast have multiple roles and eerie coincidences are to be noted here, such as the fact that Fortinbras and the Ghost are played by the same actor.

All things considered, the Ensemble's production of Hamlet is a credit to them and to their craft. The director's deliberate division of space, the use of multiple Hamlets/Ophelias, and the skill of the actors themselves, together contribute to yield one of the finer, more risky productions of Shakespeare I have seen.