Afshin Hashemi is a captivating storyteller and an excellent actor. Hashemi stars in the one-man play Hamlet, Prince of Grief written by Mohammad Charmshir, directed by Mohammad Aghebati. This team, Leev Theater Group, is visiting The Public Theater’s Under The Radar Festival from Iran where the show won critical acclaim. It is a short piece, running about 30 minutes, and performed in Farsi with English supertitles.
Hamlet, Prince of Grief is not so much an adaptation or retelling of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, but more like a riff on it. Hashemi sits at a table for most of the performance. He begins by asking us to imagine going on a picnic with your friends, as if you’ve just finished a difficult semester of school, and everyone’s looking forward to relaxing and having a good time. He introduces a bunch of objects, mostly toys and kitchen things, that one might take on such a picnic. On the way to the picnic he and his friends pass an advertising billboard that says “To Be Or Not To Be” and it makes him inexplicably uneasy. Then he gets a call on his cell phone from his Mom telling him that his father has died and that he needs to come home right away. Picnic cancelled.
I enjoyed that the playwright, Charmshir, began before the beginning and placed the story in the present. The play had fun exploring a lot of the gaps in the Hamlet story that we know. He also used elements of Shakespeare’s Hamlet only where it suited his experiment and completely changed plot points where it didn’t. But he never strayed too far from the themes of the beginning of the play which are the unexpectedness of his father’s death and the horror of learning how he died.
As I mentioned, Hashemi at first introduces a bunch of objects in relation to why they would be brought on a picnic. A small cooking pot you would cook with, some toy animal figurines represent friends, etc.. As he weaves the story the objects begin to represent different things entirely when placed in different combinations. He uses them as props, scenic elements and supporting actors in telling the story, in which he is the main character. His usage of the objects is clever and often funny (example zipping a tiny plastic palm tree past a toy truck represents driving). Most importantly the use of objects keeps the whole play on a familiar but non-literal level.
All of this is fun and fascinating, but the real reason to see Hamlet, Prince of Grief is to see Iranian actor Afshin Hashemi perform. His face and body (even sitting) are beautifully expressive. His choices are fresh, quirky and smart. He is so engaging in fact, that I hated looking above him to read the translations, afraid I would miss some cool nuance of his performance. I highly recommend catching this before it closes on January 20th.