note: entire contents copyright 2006 by Larry Stark
Design Concept by Rick Lombardo
Music Composed & Performed by Bill Barclay
Costume Design by Arthur Oliver
Lighting Design by John Malinowski
Sound and Music Design by Bill Barklay
Properties Design by Elizabeth Locke
Fight Direction by Ted Hewlett
Stage Manager Rebecca C. Monroe
Francisco/2nd Gravedigger.........Robin Smith
Horatio.....................Willie E. Teacher
Ghost/Player King/Gravedigger...Ken Cheeseman
Claudius.................Johnny Lee Davenport
Reynaldo/Player Queen...Patrice Jean-Baptiste
Players, Soldiers, Messengers, Sailors
Jason Bowen, Patrice Jean-Baptiste, Aisher Reddick, Robin Smith
The current A.S.P. production of "Hamlet" is an historic event --- but aren't they all? Yeah, probably. But this is "Hamlet" --- three and a quarter hours of power poetry that in the past three hundred years has so amazed and fascinated audiences it seems familiar even to people who may never have seen it played. There is a huge weight of its past on every scene, every line. And yet The Actors' Shakespeare Project has committed itself to do Shakespeare straight, without directorial frills, trusting the basic humanity of every character while making these old words new again.
And they have.
The company prides itself on its "homelessness" --- deliberately taking Shakespeare every production to a different performance-space. In this case they've travelled to Dorchester's Uphams Corner to do "Hamlet" in the hugely domed, marble-corridored Strand Theatre. But, in keeping with a policy of intimate involvement of the play with its audience, they've put risers for the spectators up stage-left and turned the action so, except for one effect, it's done with actors' backs to those rising banks of red-plush seats. This is an in-your-face "Hamlet" with spectators warned to keep their feet out of the way of fencing actors.
Then they have gone beyond a practice of sex-blind casting in smaller roles to color-blind casting of major ones. (This may be part of the "Design Concept" of Director Rick Lombardo, but it smoothly fits the company's intentions.) Rosencrantz is Ted Hewlett, but Rosencrantz is Sarah Newhouse. Horatio is Willie E. Teacher and Black, as is Edward O'Blenis' Laertes, and Claudius and Gertrude here are a bi-racial couple --- Blonde Marya Lowry and Black Johnny Lee Davenport --- a royal couple eagerly and publically and physically in love with each other.
At the opening of the play, Davenport's Claudius is almost drunk with power. He swaggers through dismissal of a threat that Fortinbras of Norway will invade, and swirls his giddy bride into luscious embrace before the entire court. In total arrogance, cocking his fingers in a high-elbowed, smiling gesture, he offers (subtext: demands) subordinants his ring to kiss. (Hamlet, in contemptuous exaggeration, falls equally arrogantly to his knees to give his kiss.) As his stepson gnaws away at his office, Claudius gradually reveals himself as an unsteady, crafty monarch, cooly negotiating with Laertes (even while the populace outside the palace are howling "Laertes shall be king!") to murder the obstreperous Hamlet three subtly treacherous different ways. In a soliloquy halfway through the action, Davenport momentarily makes the play "The Tragedy of Claudius, King of Denmark."
Marya Lowry's Queen Gertrude has a more linear slide from flamboyant love to disillusioned contempt. At her first entrance, her makeup exaggerating her age, her unkempt hair (only minutes from bed?) and fawning kisses shout her two-months' reawakening of physical sex. It's not till her tormented son accuses her of complicity in her first husband's murder that her joy in Claudius freezes into contempt.
Inside the bubbling cauldron of Elsinore Castle, several people get in the way and are mowed down by the relentless flow of action. One of those is the buttoned-down adviser, Robert Walsh's Polonius (father of that Laertes the populous wants as king). His daughter Ophelia (Marianna Bassham) has been Hamlet's love (with the queen's approval), but clear-eyed dad knows the danger of a frivolous union with a potential king, and Walsh snaps into peremptory disapproval when the depth of their union becomes obvious. However, he is mesmerized by this dangerous love, and it blinds him awhile to what's really eating the prince. The crisp cut of his hair and beard, the leather folders and attache-case, proclaim him an efficient executive while his penchant for flowery verbiage rather than substance shows his shortcomings.
Amid the grinding of these conflicting icebergs, poor Ophelia never has a chance. Marianna Bassham makes her a dutiful daughter unwilling to cross her lover, but blown by contrary winds she ends in chaotic insanity when the man who says he loves her murders her own father.
This is a very physical production, and not only Ophelia, who dashes distractedly about spewing snatches of song, demonstrates this. Benjamin Evett is a very physical Hamlet. He is as often perched somewhere on two builders' scaffolds, that swing in or out of the playing-space, as he is on the ground. He coaches the players from a balcony seat before wriggling nearer the stage to demonstrate. He cudgels his head in frustration, rushes about the stage in a dissheveled shirt, and seems only calm when sharing with the audience his soliloquized thoughts and insights. The only citizen of Denmark who knows his uncle the king to be a murderer he seems driven near madness by the knowledge.
He knows, of course, because Ken Cheeseman, calmly tall in a pale blue jump-suit, comes as the Ghost of King Hamlet his father to demand he revenge that murder. Cheeseman is calmly regal as the Ghost, serenely witty as a Gravedigger, and exaggeratedly over the top as the Player King. Calm as well is Willie E. Teacher's Horatio, who is witness to the unfolding tragedy, as well as Jason Bowen, who steps out of several supporting roles to close the play as that Fortinbras come from Norway to restore order.
The whole brangling turmoil of intrigues and deceptions and treacheries rolls toward that last exciting confrontation in which Edward O'Blenis and Benjamin Evett display spectacularly realized rapier-work directed by Ted Hewlett. Caught up in the game, dueling almost in the laps of the audience, these fencers toy quickly, delicately with one another until the inevitable explosion and the chaotic collapse of the entire Danish royal family. After such an intense realization, the body of Prince Hamlet is born as a soldier out the rear door of the stage while a slow, muffled cannonade echoes through the darkening stage. And it is a compliment to this performance that it takes an audience almost a minute to remind themselves they have experienced a play that fully deserves standing applause.
The rest is silence.....
As founder of this landmark company, Ben Evett announced:
"Our goal is to make Shakespeare not just accessible and relevant to modern audiences but essential to them"
You are to me already, Ben --- and I don't think I'm alone.
Break a leg all!
( a k a larry stark )