Hamlet is Shakespeare’s longest play. If everything he wrote for the work ends up on stage, a production can take nearly five hours. And the role of Hamlet… Denmark’s conflicted prince, grappling with how to avenge his father’s murder – is the greatest Shakespeare created. He is a character almost always animated by a male actor.
None of this applies to current Cincinnati Shakespeare Company (CSC) production. Hamlet — the running time (with one intermission) is less than two and a half hours and the title role is played by CSC veteran Sara Clark as a bewildered, fiery, and witty woman. The production also has many other differences, including the performance’s opening lines. Instead of the traditional opening scene featuring the castle guards at night, Hamlet delivers the show’s most famous soliloquy, “To be or not to be, that is the question”, which usually occurs around the middle of the play. .
Why these changes? Director Sarah Lynn Brown not only directed this production, but she also did the “coupage”, or rearrangement of the script. By immediately launching into the well-known speech of Hamlet at the late king’s funeral, the audience gets a glimpse of his state of mind from the get-go. With Clark’s accurate rendition of the break and restart, Hamlet is quickly shown to be furious, but unsure of what to do.
Brown’s rearrangement of material goes much further. The ghost of the king is omnipresent in this production; he is usually only briefly portrayed in the first scene as he materializes to urge Hamlet to “Remember me!” In fact, all the actors are constantly present, seated at the back of the stage in straight-backed chairs, standing up for the action moments. The King (played ominously by Jared Joplin) rises from an abstract tomb at center stage and almost never leaves. In fact, as various characters meet their demise, he’s on hand, occasionally overseeing a costume change to denote their departure.
In addition to cutting the show’s length, Brown’s adaptation added material from other Shakespearean works, including macbeth, Richard III and King John. These amplify and add texture and motivation to Ophelia (Angélique Archer), whose relationship with a female Hamlet has added dimensions of confusion, frustration, and possibly suicidal insanity.
With Hamlet portrayed as a young woman, she and her mother, Queen Gertrude (Sara Mackie), have a different relationship than most productions of the play. Gertrude is compromised because her new husband, King Claudius (Jim Hopkins), is Hamlet’s uncle. He is also Gertrude’s former brother-in-law and the king’s assassin. Mackie’s Gertrude is more sympathetic and motherly than usual in her interactions with Hamlet, tinged with fear and uncertainty. As Claudius, Hopkins uses a smarmy and insinuating exterior to mask his fears that his crime will be discovered.
Guest actor “ranney” delivers two memorable roles – the talkative, pontificating Polonius and the comic-relief Gravedigger. His final graveside performance, filled with a handful of skulls and a fair amount of musical ad-libbing, is especially fun as he practices with Hamlet. Geoffrey Warren Barnes II is Hamlet’s friend and staunch supporter, Horatio. Crystian Wiltshire is Laertes, Ophelia’s fiery brother.
The joint characters of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (AJ Baldwin, Brianna Miller) provide several humorous moments, often locked in arm-in-arm and moving with exaggerated, self-aware strides. They’re perfect foils for Hamlet’s harsh inquisition regarding their motives and orders, a pair of silly Tweedledum and Tweedledee who are pawns in a larger, more insidious tale.
The rambunctious traveling troupe of Players – actors who present a scene devised by Hamlet to fool the king and queen’s reactions to the murder plot – are played by Cary Davenport, Colleen Dougherty, Courtney Lucien and Nathan Sullivan. Dougherty uses a handheld video camera to provide images, sometimes live, sometimes frozen, which are projected onto the large palettes and floor of Samantha Reno’s abstract set. The moments of close-up video attention to Clark’s expressive face are particularly poignant as she studies the royal family’s telltale expressions on the ongoing uncomfortable narrative.
Of particular note are Brave Berlin’s contributions to this production. This name is familiar to people who attended Lumenocity events in Washington Park from 2013 to 2016 and BLINK festivals in 2017 and 2019. The creative company specializes in illusion, specifically the medium of projection mapping, in which visual images are designed and projected onto static images. surfaces to convey realistic or whimsical scenes. Their impressionistic images set the mood of the action against Reno’s angular backdrop. The effect is both subtle and profound when combined with Kevin Semancik’s ethereal sound design and Justen N. Locke’s shadow play stage lighting.
There is little tradition in this CSC production: Abbi Howson’s costumes are modern clothes. Claudius wears a conservative burgundy suit; Gertrude wears a set of aquatic pants with a flowing cape. As Hamlet, Clark dons understated black and indigo jackets and pants. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern wear loud plaid sports coats, and the ghost of the late king is dressed all in white.
This lack of tradition actually Hamlet all the more convincing. For anyone who has seen more standard productions, this one requires special attention, as the material has been moved, reinvented, or removed altogether. The Brave Berlin screenings also provide occasional hints of acts and scenes in the original; that’s helpful, but it also highlights how much of the material has been reorganized.
If you’ve seen a traditional Hamlet staging, you won’t be fazed by this one. In fact, you might enjoy distilling. Brown’s concise adaptation is certainly less strenuous than sitting in for four or more hours of theater. (This HamletBoth acts last about an hour each, with a 15-minute intermission.)
Sara Clark’s feminine take on Hamlet is refreshing and insightful. All in all, it’s an invigorating evening of theatre, a demonstration of how and why Shakespeare’s works remain relevant after more than four centuries.
Hamlet, presented by the Cincinnati Shakespeare Company (1195 Elm St., Over-the-Rhine), continues through March 20. Tickets start at $14. A mask and proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test are required for entry. For more information and tickets, visit cincyshakes.com.
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