Theatre Mirror Reviews - "I Am Hamlet"

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entire contents copyright 2010 by John Geoffrion

"I Am Hamlet"

Reviewed by John Geoffrion

"Never eat at a place called Mom's. Never play cards with a man named Doc. And never sleep with a woman who's got more troubles than you." - Nelson Algren.

Very sound advice, that. I would add a codicil: never go to plays (especially Shakespearean adaptations) written and directed by someone who bills himself as "The Shakespeare Guy." Would that I had heeded that advice this evening. Having seen the list of Joe "Shakespeare Guy" Siracusa's other Shakespearean adaptations, including "A Midsummer Knight's Ice Cream" and "The Bard and the Bear," a creeping sense of dread set in as I awaited the curtain.

A wise man once said, "The play's the thing." It's a quote that both writer/director Siracusa and actor Brian Morey should know well, and it's a pity that they put the focus elsewhere, on a self-indulgent production that puts the focus on the actor, the performance, and a grab-bag of gimmickry rather than on the play itself. I found it to be a rather intolerable display of ego, both of the writer and the producer. What does it add to our understanding of the play, or of its title character? Nothing.

This is a one-man show; and no, it's not a re-telling of Hamlet from the perspective of a single character. Morey plays everybody, so inevitably the show won't be about Hamlet (the play), or Hamlet (the character), or for that matter Shakespeare. It's all about Morey and his actors' bag of tricks, and not a single one goes unused. His entire vocal range will be utilized, and a dozen distinct characters and physicalities, he will don all manner of costumes, masks, and wigs, and he will sing his heart out in a variety of styles and pitches. He makes sure he shows us the length and breadth of his talent and training, and won't let us go until we know just how hard he's working. And that's the problem here; we're not meant to appreciate the psychological profundity of Shakespeare's humanist masterpiece, we're meant to marvel at the efforts of a single actor. Imagine going to a rock concert that consisted solely of a two-hour guitar solo. No matter how impressed we are by his virtuosity, after fifteen minutes or so even the most die-hard metalhead's attention will wane.

The strength of an actor, we're told, is his or her ability to lose one's sense of ego, and go boldly and fearlessly into situations of emotional vulnerability or extreme ridiculousness. And Morey certainly finds himself in such situations. As the Ghost, wearing a giant horned helmet, wearing platform shoes and bearing an enormous shield, I'm sure he felt fearsome indeed, but it was all I could do to suppress the urge to shout "NI!!" And as Ophelia, in his white dress and blond wig, I really wish the burly brunette actor had shaved his full beard, especially when he launched into an earnest falsetto (and self-composed) love ballad. High camp? Sadly no. The level of apparently unintentional absurdity had me biting my cheek nearly to the point of drawing blood to avoid an outburst of laughter, which surely would have been bad form.

Siracusa's adaptation doesn't do Morey any favors either. Shakespeare's text has been re-assembled in order for Morey to only have to play one character at a time, turning dialogue into monologue, but in some places Siracusa cops out and has Morey conversing with a pre-recorded voce (also Morey). The players sequence is a silent film homage, and quite clever, actually, in which Morey of course plays every character (and provides, thankfully, a beardless Ophelia), but still, in a solo show, it's cheating.

Siracusa also takes some liberties with the wording, adding in his own original contributions which jar. Really, why does Ophelia say "Oh, my lord, I have been so scared of Hamlet's madness!" Does he think we wouldn't know what "affrighted" means? And we really don't need the updates: "I am Hamlet. I am being watched. People are trying to kill me." And when Hamlet namedrops both Brian Morey and the BCA in the "What A Rogue And Peasant Slave Am I" speech, it's Brechtian in the worst sense of the word, and to no apparent purpose.

A scene most telling in its absence is Act Three, Scene Two, Hamlet's advice to the players. It's sound advice that Siracusa and Morey seem to have deliberately chosen to avoid, to their peril: "Oh, it offends me to the soul to hear a robustious periwig-pated fellow tear a passion to tatters, to very rags, to split the ears of the groundlings, who for the most part are capable of nothing but inexplicable dumb-shows and noise". And later on, he famously counsels "for anything so o'erdone is from the purpose of playing, whose end both at the first and now, was and is, to hold as 'twere, the mirror up to nature."

Would that they had.

PS - A recurring line, both spoken and sung, is "Something's Rotten in Denmark. Something Stinks." Although they open the door for me, I won't take the bait. It's just too easy.

"I Am Hamlet" (19 October - 7 November)
@ Boston Center foR The Arts, 539 Tremont Street, BOSTON MA
1(781)771-9267 1(310)463-1231

THE THEATER MIRROR, New England's LIVE Theater Guide