nytheatre.com review by David Ian Lee
April 16, 2009
The Queens Players, in residence at The Secret Theatre in Long Island City, have staged a brisk, inventive adaptation of Hamlet that, more often than not, makes a strong argument for giving Billy Shake's Danish vignette an investigative pass. Though troubled by wildly varying performances and a Hamlet who doesn't quite fit the bill, their knavish piece of work is an engaging and thoughtful evening of theatre, staged by a young company known for ambition and the passionate embrace of an individualized aesthetic.
With soft features and a reedy, high-pitched voice, Kirk Gostkowski does not immediately suggest the brooding Melancholy Dane, but rather the dark side of a Walter Mitty fantasy: an unassuming everyman plopped not into extraordinary circumstances, but the unenviable position of having to perform the greatest role in the English language; his seems to be Hamlet, the Vaguely Bewildered Dane. As the actor playing Hamlet sets the tone of the production orbiting about him, much of the first third of this adaptation is—sadly—timid, halting, and physically uncertain. Indeed, after a visually stunning first sequence, something seems rotten in the state of Denmark for a long, long time.
However, with the introduction of the Players, there comes an identifiable shift. Daniel Smith's First Player takes the stage with wit, volume, and a fearless demeanor; he launches into the telling of Priam's slaughter, and—though the sequence lasts no longer than a minute—Smith is thrilling and dynamic (one cannot help but wonder what his future Hamlet will look like). The speech challenges Hamlet to rise to the occasion; wonderfully, a similar effect is had on Gostkowski, who progresses with confidence, warmth, and tempo. This seemingly newfound passion and coolness carries Gostkowski and the show into the second act, through the murder of Polonius, and offstage to adventures with the Pirates of the North Atlantic.
It is then, in the final third of this Hamlet, with Ophelia's madness and the return of Laertes, that the promise of Rich Ferraioli's direction (as raised by particularly witty and earnest program notes) is fulfilled. Ferraioli finds ingenious alternatives to Ophelia's lute and flowers, and even manages to drown the character on stage twice (first metaphorically, and then with unsettling finality). Some of Ferraioli's choices work better than others (having the Ghost cameo as a ferryman to usher characters across the River Styx is brilliant; having the Ghost cameo as a janitor to mop up water spilled in the process: not so much), but the production comes into its own, careening with satisfying intensity toward duels, double-crosses, and mass death.
Critic and caricaturist Mac Beerbohm famously wrote, "Hamlet is a hoop through which every eminent actor must, sooner or later, jump." To play the role is an almost masochistic act: audience members bring to the theatre preconceived notions, unfair biases, and the unshakable ghosts of Hamlets past; those astounding (Branagh, Jacobi, Vaughn) and appalling (full disclosure: I once donned the tights for a techno-conceptual staging in a lunar planetarium. Yikes). Though he often seems to be playing against type, Gostkowski finds moments of simplicity and honesty in his idiosyncratic take on the part. His use of direct address during Hamlet's soliloquies is particularly engaging, and Gostkowski does well by all of Hamlet's Greatest Hits ("To Be or Not To Be," "Rogue and Peasant Slave," "Get Thee to a Nunnery"). By play's end, Gostkowski has claimed the role as his own, and should hold his head high, having survived this particular theatrical rite of passage.
The rest of the cast run the gamut: Tony Scheinman's Claudius seems alternately patronizing and demonstrative, while Rony Lee Goffer's understated turn as Gertrude is a lesson in effective economy. John-Michael Marrs was an audience favorite as the fiery, ferocious Laertes (one cannot help but wonder what his future Hamlet will look like). Henry Packer's Polonius is likely the driest ever conceived, though the character's danger and stature are undercut by other characters overtly indicating annoyance with his verbosity (for Claudius, the King of Denmark, to melodramatically palm a yawn and roll his eyes behind his chief advisor's back is absurd, diminishing, and insulting).
As Horatio, Shelleen Kostabi opens and closes the production with an inventive coda device, and the actress proves to be both talented and courageous. However, Kostabi too often appears coquettish and flirtatious, playing a Horatio far more physically affectionate than Hamlet's beloved Ophelia; by the time an impromptu kiss is exchanged, a story divergent from Shakespeare's has been unfortunately suggested. Still, Kostabi remains a strong, engaging presence (given her program bio, one cannot help but wonder what her future Hamlet will look like).
Despite her beautiful, operatic voice (employed to occasionally sing ballads in inexplicable German), Alyssa Van Gorder's Ophelia does not fair well. With a tendency to swallow Shakespeare's text in grunts and mumblings, nearly all of Van Gorder's lines are proceeded by interminable pauses. She is not helped by a costume and hairstyle that more readily suggests a Swedish pop musical rather than a Danish revenge tragedy.
Though the costumes often distract (evoking the muted khaki and gray of a Gap advertisement, or, intriguingly, the soft blues of political life popularized by the Obama presidential campaign), the other technical elements of this Hamlet are in strong form. R. Allen Babcock's stage design—facilitated by scenic artists Stephanie Stover and Cristina Arroyo—features monochromatic illustrations reminiscent of Dali, Escher, and Hieronymus Bosch (with odd touches of Masonic and Quija imagery). Graham Stone's sound design is effectively chilling. Dara Tiller's inventive fight choreography suggests a promising career.
Though uneven, The Queens Players' Hamlet shows the promise this young company has to offer New York's indie theater community. With a commute time from 42nd Street no more laborious than those to certain Uptown or Village venues, The Secret Theatre continues to assert its vibrancy and potential.