nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
May 20, 2006
To be or not to be
That is the question
In fact, for theatregoers who can choose from half a dozen or more Hamlets every season, the question is: Why this one? Theater By The Blind's answer may surprise you: see their Hamlet—a well-acted marvel of economy and energy, directed by Ike Schambelan—because it's fun. Performed by six passionate, versatile, and committed actors, this production makes the so-familiar work seem brand new. Schambelan focuses on the story-telling in this very exciting, incident-filled play, and his breathless (but never rushed!) staging keeps us entertained and riveted from Francisco and Bernardo's first moments on guard duty until the famous, tragic, bloody end. (If you need a synopsis of the plot, there's a good detailed one at Shakespeare Online.)
In a fascinating program note, Schambelan tells us that the original Hamlet was probably performed by about six or seven players, doubling and tripling in the many roles. He gives us a Hamlet with a cast of six, with everybody including the one covering the title role serving double duty and more; he's broken down the characters into six archetypes, along the following lines: a Guardian figure (Marcellus, Polonius, Gravedigger, Osric); a King/Father figure (Claudius, the Ghost, the Player King); a Queen/Mother figure (Gertrude, Reynaldo, the Player Queen, the Second Gravedigger); a Lover figure (Horatio, Ophelia, Rosencrantz); a Friend figure (Laertes, Bernardo, Guildenstern, the Player); and the Prince himself, who also serves as Francisco and the Sailor.
What this does is (a) make the play move swiftly and tautly, with the myriad quick changes and potential overlaps challenging the artists delightfully in a kind of game/test of skill that's wondrously original and amusing; and (b) allow each of the players to deliver the kind of tour de force performance that's generally reserved only for the one portraying Hamlet. These six rise to the occasion magnificently. Melanie Boland is a splendid Gertrude, at once loving and duplicitous to her son, and she's also dead-on as the Second Gravedigger and the snivelly snitch Reynaldo. George Ashiotis, Theater By The Blind's stalwart co-artistic director, gives us a kingly Ghost and a much more ordinary Claudius, providing interesting contrast between the two. John Little has fun employing different accents, mannerisms, and eyeglasses as each of his characters, including a Polonius who is the perfect bureaucratic windbag and an Osric who is as unctuous and annoying as possible in just a tiny amount of stage time.
The younger trio of actors are just as accomplished. Pamela Sabaugh is probably the most convincing Ophelia I've ever seen; she makes her what Shakespeare seems to have written—a genuinely innocent, genuinely confused young woman; her scenes in the final acts as she moves toward her tragic destiny are authentically poignant and not in the least overplayed. Yet Sabaugh also creates two entirely different roles here, an earnest and dogged if not-too-swift Horatio, and, most memorably, a Keanu Reeves-like Rosencrantz who emerges, with Nick Cordileone's Guildenstern, as possesed of genuine personality and purpose (as opposed to the usual colorless in-jokes that these two are so often portrayed as in post-Stoppard productions). Here, R & G act like doofuses at times—they wander into the climactic playing of "The Murder of Gonzago" holding bowls of M&Ms and popcorn—but they also achieve real menace as the true nature of their visit to Hamlet is revealed. Cordileone is also excellent as Laertes, a carefree young guy who suddenly finds himself confronting a series of tragedies that make him grow up overnight.
At the center of it all is Nicholas Viselli as the Prince, in a performance that's surprisingly clear-eyed, straightforward and enormously appealing. Viselli's Hamlet begins angry and in pain, all the more so for not really understanding why. The appearance of his father's ghost sets him on a course of self-examination that culminates in the play's famous soliloquy, a speech that Viselli really claims as his own by emphasizing that Hamlet really is about to make a choice between life or death. "That is THE question," he slowly intones, and we understand that we're about to witness a fundamental and transforming decision. Viselli's Hamlet bursts into vivid focus once he's made up his mind, and the rest of the play's scenes breeze by as a result. It's a terrific and daring portrayal that enlivens a role that's so very familiar.
Schambelan's contemporizing touches, often humorous, also serve to make the piece fresh and accessible. The costumes (designed by Christine Field) are of the present-day, with the guards in flak jackets, Guildenstern in a baseball cap and bright green windbreaker, and Hamlet—shrewdly—in a T-shirt and pajama bottoms for the "What a rogue and peasant slave" and "To be or not to be" scenes. Merope Vachlioti's unit set provides compact multi-purpose playing areas that never need to be touched (except to clear the stage for the big fight scene); this helps ensure that the pace never slackens for a second.
It all makes for as involving and engaging production as I think it's possible to have of a play that at least this particular theatregoer has seen and studied so many times since high school that nearly every beat of it is second nature. It's not easy to make Hamlet look new and exciting, and so Theater By The Blind deserves our congratulations and our gratitude. If by some chance you've never seen this classic, here's a splendid opportunity; and if you have, then I think you'll find much here to delight and excite you that you may not have noticed before.