nytheatre.com review by David Fuller
August 9, 2008
Words, words, words. All of them. And spoken trippingly on the tongue. This is what you get at the fast-paced, no-frills, uncut, intelligent production of the Bard's longest and perhaps most famous play currently being performed on a half-acre patch of grass in front of the beautiful Cloisters museum as presented by Gorilla Repertory.
Artistic director Christopher Carter Sanderson has directed the play with what might appear to be a manic obsession to get it all out for us to hear and bring it all in for us to get out at a reasonable hour. Amazingly, it is indeed only a three-hour production. (I have heard tell of uncut versions dragging on for nearly five hours.) More amazingly, every word of the unedited text is spoken with clarity and is understood. In this version, the Play is the thing, devoid of any conceptual trappings: the actors use modern dress, with just a few period touches—the emphasis is on the acting.
In Gorilla Rep's usual style, the performance is at several locales around the aforementioned half-acre plot. It is an inspired setting, in front of the Cloisters, which looks like it could easily be Elsinore Castle in Denmark. As evening transitions into night, there is a palpable scent of rosemary in the air; the birds give way to fireflies (and what looked like a few bats); the portable footlight/floodlights come alive to guide us towards the action. The audience is encouraged to move with the scenes, though with this Hamlet I found it not as necessary as in other Gorilla Rep productions—the actors were uniformly loud enough. Some audience members in fact just sat in the center of the grass and turned their chairs as the action warranted. As usual, the staging keeps the play flying forward to its inexorable conclusion and Sanderson cleverly uses various locations in the area to full effect: the mad Ophelia appears through the bushes as if she really just came from an herb garden; the comic gravedigger really digs skulls out of the ground; the final duel, a bona fide rapier and dagger fight expertly choreographed by Ryan Bartuff, is smartly placed on the level driveway so that lunges and parries aren't impeded by unlevel footing.
The rub, though, is in the individual performances. It seems that textural clarity and audibility has been emphasized to the near exclusion of passion. You often marvel at the language, but you don't really believe the emotions. This is an odd critique to make for an American production of Shakespeare, where textual clarity is often sacrificed to emotional commitment. Here, the paucity of true passion may be a by-product of performing out-of-doors. It is quite possible that as the show continues its run (I saw it in the opening weekend) the actors will get confident in their ability to articulate the language and project the text and they may settle in to a more emotionally grounded performance.
Christopher Gottschalk deserves many kudos for undertaking the immense task of performing the unexpurgated Dane outside. And he succeeds on many levels. You always understand what he is saying and you know that he understands the role. His Hamlet is a young energetic student who may just very well be a little crazy. Once his father's ghost appears there is little doubt he is driven over the edge. It is always a pleasure to watch him, even if there are times he could dig a little deeper for the emotional underpinnings.
Many of the other actors are less successful, opting for loud clarity over any kind of real characterization. Still, there are a number of bright spots. For instance, Kurt Uy's Laertes manages a fresh honesty that is great fun to watch. You really empathize with his struggle to tell his sister the facts of life and your heart breaks with him when he later sees his sister gone mad. Christopher Salazar's Horatio deserves special mention. It's nice to see this character fully fleshed out and he takes advantage of the rare opportunity to speak the entire role (it is too often cut to shreds) by giving an earnest portrayal of a true friend.
There is much to recommend this Hamlet. The setting at the Cloisters is stellar. The speaking of the text is nearly crystal clear. And the story is vanilla Shakespeare without a "point of view." Best, however, is the rare chance to hear the entire play. If, like me, you have never had this opportunity, you may revel in the chance to hear all that the Bard wrote, including the redundancies, recapitulations, and seemingly tangential thoughts. For, there is really nothing that doesn't belong there—we have just gotten used to cutting the play because our attention-deficit modern age can't seem to take the whole thing. Without the trappings of concept, Gorilla Rep gives us, ironically, a "fresh" look at a masterpiece. Plus, this production surely holds your attention. Once it begins, it is a rapid roller coaster you daren't leave until the final glide to the start-finish line.