nytheatre.com review by Alyssa Simon
March 27, 2009
In the playbill for Theatre For A New Audience's Hamlet, Jeffrey Horowitz, the artistic director and founder, states that their 2008-09 season is called HEAVYWEIGHTS (with all caps intended) because the plays, by Shakespeare, Dostoyevsky, and Edward Bond, "explore power, marriage and family, good and evil, and God and humanity. They are as immediate as today's headlines." David Esbjornson, Hamlet's director, stays true to this intent. For example, he incorporates Arthurian legend to explore honor and familial duty and uses interesting text cuts to comment on current events. While big themes and contemporary issues are explored in powerful and fascinating ways, what is missing is a more personal story. I believe, however, with such a strong cast, they will find their own way into the text as the run progresses.
The setting is a thrust stage painted stark glossy black. Scenic designer Antje Ellermann, along with lighting designer Marcus Doshi, creates a dark industrial world of sharp edges and shadows. You can believe there are spies lurking around every corner and no one is safe to speak freely. The text of Act 1, Scenes 1 and 2 are split. The frightened soldiers Bernardo and Marcellus are out in the cold and damp dark night keeping watch so as to maintain the power of the corrupt Claudius inside the palace, celebrating his new position in luxury and comfort with his court. It's a great and very topical commentary on class and the use of the military to protect the interests of the ruling elite.
Throughout the opening scene, everyone on stage echoes the word "speak" whenever it is said. It becomes clear why, in a startling way, when Hamlet (Christian Camargo) speaks the final line in his first soliloquy, "But break my heart, for I must hold my tongue." It's robust and incisive direction like this that raises issues like speaking truth to power and finding one's own way in a morally ambiguous world. Likewise, in Act 1, Scene 4, the ghost of Hamlet's father (Jonathan Fried) appears to Hamlet and commands him to avenge his murder. There is no pity for this ghost. Fried is terrifying in his single-minded and venomous howling for revenge. He is doomed, it seems, not only because he has been murdered, but also because he is consumed with the need to perpetuate killing. He stabs his sword in the ground for Hamlet to pull out and take up. This made me think about how masculine honor and duty are twined up in myth and legend with violence and bloodshed.
Although the larger picture and issues are intellectually clear, at this performance, it was not yet certain how this Hamlet, out of all the other Hamlets, feels about what is taking place. Aside from what must have been an absolutely exhausting rehearsal process for the play, which opened only the night before, one technical reason could be that it was difficult to see Camargo's eyes. With the lighting angles, much facial expression is lost when he is looking down. It is certain that with his talent and command of the stage, he will create his own indelible stamp on the role.
One who has already is the magnificent Alvin Epstein. His Polonius is in total keeping with the world of the play and a thoroughly original creation. He is crotchety, which gives him a strange dignity, and although sometimes clueless, he is not the pompous gasbag usually associated with the character. While he may talk on and on, Epstein gives him the awareness of his own age and mortality. He needs to get these things out while there is still time and he deserves to be heard.
Jennifer Ikeda as Ophelia also shines in a very difficult role. Her stage presence keeps you riveted. Her sharp and grounded intelligence is a welcome take on a character often perceived as helpless and weak. It makes her ensuing madness that much more heartbreaking. She imbues the white tulle in which she is wrapped (at her first appearance it's a bridal veil; then it's a a web in which she is trapped in her mad scene) with her own reality, embodying and transcending its symbolic concepts.
Horatio, played by Tom Hammond, is similarly grounded in his portrayal of a man who is a loyal friend and blessed with common sense. Hammond's take on Horatio makes you understand why he is the only one to make it out of the final scene alive.
Robert Stattel is delightful as the Player King and the priest. The players wear the only colorful costumes, beautifully done by Elizabeth Clancy. Everyone else, aside from Hamlet in black and white and Ophelia at the end all in white, wear varying shades of grey to connote a world of ethical ambiguity and moral compromise.
John Christopher Jones as the Gravedigger is a wonderful comic relief and uses physicality like a simple shake of his hips to speak volumes about how his character, poor and powerless, is freer in that world than a prince.
The fight choreography by B.H. Barry is thrilling. This is one of the first times I've seen a duel on stage and felt the action was spur-of-the-moment and that the fighters and onlookers were in danger.
Overall, this is a production that made me think and for that I am very grateful to all involved. I am sure that in the time of the play's run, the heart of the story will emerge as well.