Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, July 2009

To die, to sleep; To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there's the rub; For in that sleep of death what dreams may come When we have shuffled off this mortal coil, Must give us pause:...

But that the dread of something after death, The undiscover'd country from whose bourn No traveller returns, puzzles the will And makes us rather bear those ills we have Than fly to others that we know not of? Thus conscience does make cowards of us all;...

- William Shakespeare, Hamlet

What Adam Mathias and William Addis have done with Shakespeare’s Hamlet is nothing short of brilliant. You may love it, as I did, or you may hate it, especially if you like your Shakespeare straight, no twist, but no one can doubt that a tremendous amount of scholarly work went in to this clever adaptation which pares the story down to 90-minutes (no intermission) performed by just four actors.

Shakespeare & Company is reviving their 2006 production of Hamlet directed by Eleanor Holdridge with a cast of eleven, (half of the 22 called for in the original,) a few of whom play double roles, which cuts the show to just under three hours. And Tom Stoppard famously cut it down to a mere 15 minutes in his Dogg’s Hamlet* (1979). Holdridge’s is still a little long for modern tastes (my friend Larry Murray refers to it as the “Purgatory Version” as opposed to the Hell of a four-plus hour sit), and 15 minutes is undeniably too short, but 90 minutes, it turns out, is just about right.

… brevity is the soul of wit,...

- William Shakespeare, Hamlet

Like Holdridge’s production, Mathias, who is credited with adapting the script, and director Addis, conceive the action as taking place in Hamlet’s mind/memory after his death. There is no shame in this coincidence – Mathias and Addis have not seen Holdridge’s version – it is simply a case of great minds thinking alike. The overall concepts may be the same, but the shows presented are very different.

In this case what we are seeing/hearing are the dreams that come, the ones of which Hamlet expresses such fear in the famous “To be, or not to be...” speech quoted at the start of this review. Both adaptations also conflate characters and reassign lines, but Mathias and Addis’ adaptation does not follow Shakespeare’s linear chronology. “The time is out of joint.”

“We made several decisions early: to look at the play from Hamlet’s point of view, not to limit ourselves to a linear telling, and to focus on Hamlet and the three characters he loves: Gertrude, Ophelia, and Horatio.”

– William Addis, program notes

Bakerloo has a history of re-imagining characters in ways I find consistently fascinating. Some experiments, like the inspired concept of not only having the same actor play Puck and Peter Quince in A Midsummer Night’s Dream but making Peter Quince Puck in disguise all along, an impish sprite in the mechanicals midst with no higher goal than to mess with their minds, or having Sarah Murphy play Ophelia and the Gravedigger in this production, so that when Hamlet asks “Whose grave is this?” and she answers “Mine” chills go up your spine, work beautifully, while others, like having two seemingly conjoined actors, one male and one female, share the role of Caliban in last year’s The Tempest are more thought-provoking than they are theatrically successful, but always they are daring, innovative, and clearly thought through.

Here the words, the flow of events, and the assignment of actors is perfect. Joseph McGranaghan plays Hamlet, while Gwyn Hervochon plays Gertrude, The Player King, and the Ghost of Hamlet’s father; Murphy plays Laertes, Ophelia, and the Gravedigger; and newcomer Adam Thomas Smith plays Horatio, Polonius, and Claudius. (Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are, presumably, dead.)

If you have never seen a Bakerloo production before they work as an ensemble with a core company and have a distinctive style of acting. Murphy and Hervochon have performed together for a decade now, and McGranaghan is in his fourth season with the company. This breeds a level of trust and comfort among the performers, who balance each other smoothly in terms of skill and talent. While McGranaghan plays the “lead” there are no lesser or greater players here.

McGranaghan is young and lean and gives a good sense of the short-sighted passions of youth. Hervochon is a sturdy Gertrude. Because we never see Claudius, it is her relationship with Hamlet that takes center stage, but Addis does not dwell on the Oedipal. Murphy is a striking actress who easily commands attention, and her versatility is on full display here as she switches seamlessly between male and female roles.

There is a lot to like about this adaptation, but my favorite part was that Hamlet and Ophelia got a love scene. I don’t know about you, but I have always wanted to see those two happy, to see them share just one kiss. Shakespeare gives us only a shadowy glimpse of their love – if it even existed. Here Ophelia gets Hamlet’s “What a piece of work is man...” speech as she lies in the arms of her lover, admiring him as only a woman (or man) besotted would dare to admire another’s person. This gives Murphy a chance to show us the pre-mad Ophelia, a young woman of conviction, instead of the girl so easily persuaded by others’ plans for her life that she loses her way.

At Bakerloo necessity is always the mother of invention. You can’t build a big fancy set and snazzy costumes when you only charge $16 a ticket and the company’s mission is to provide high quality theatre at affordable prices, but Addis and his cast do a great deal with four chairs, a table, and a variety of hand-props, including a pile of rubber skulls. Hervechon transforms into the Ghost of Hamlet’s father by the simple device of holding a hand-mirror before her face, and, in the other hand, a battery operated light-bulb. The reflected light is very bright, but not blinding, and serves as the only stage lighting for the scene between Hamlet and the Ghost giving a properly eerie effect. My favorite costume effect was Hamlet finally removing his jacket to reveal a gash in his black t-shirt revealing a glimpse of a bright red one underneath. “I am dead, Horatio.”

The stage fighting was also very cleverly staged. At Shakespeare & Company they literally have an entire faculty who teach stage combat. Without such in depth and expert training, the enterprise becomes very dangerous indeed, especially when rapiers get involved. By having combatants fight beside, rather than opposite each other, the challenge becomes one of choreography rather than avoiding mortal wounds. Yes, I do know there are rubber tips on the rapiers, but there is always the danger of injury when physical contact in involved. Addis’ solution allows for the drama of the combat without the danger.

And speaking of choreography, I just loved the staging of the play-within-a-play “The Murder of Gonzago” as a hip-hop dance number to a recording of The Garden by Mirah. If the combination of words Hamlet and “hip-hop” in the same sentence are horrifying to you, don’t rush for the exits just yet. The sequence is brief, intriguing, and tells the story very concisely.

But on the subject of hip-hop and other things youthful, this production could be Bakerloo’s Golden Ticket, and not just because it has one funky dance number but because it brings the story into a sharp, youth-oriented focus and cuts it down to a length easily added to a school day (90 minutes was a double-period class in my day.) Assuming it is presented to young audiences who are either in the process of reading and studying Hamlet or in conjunction with a workshop that familiarizes them with the plot, this show has “legs” in the educational theatre arena. Whether Bakerloo tours it themselves, or licenses the production to an educational theatre company, this show could be a steady source of income for the company for years to come. (I don’t think anyone is going to stop teaching Shakespeare in high school and college any time soon.)

I feared that people not terribly familiar with Hamlet might find this adaptation confusing, but my companion for the evening, who described her exposure to the work as having studied the script in high school and having seen a production once at some indeterminate point in the murky depths of her past, found the whole thing thoroughly enjoyable. There is a plot synopsis in the program with which you can refresh your memory, but essentially this is “Hamlet Greatest Hits” arranged in an order that doesn’t follow Shakespeare’s but which does make sense in its own context.

If you are familiar with Hamlet this will be the best fun you’ve had since the first time you read or saw Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guidenstern Are Dead – another one of those love-it-or-hate-it-you-can’t-deny-that-its-clever riff on the original. And if you love Shakespeare but hate sitting in the theatre for three-plus hours, this is just your ticket. I adored this brief voyage into Hamlet’s psyche. The summer is half-way over and this is the first production so far that has really made my heart sing.

Click HERE to learn about a Special Bakerloo Discount for GailSez Readers!

The Bakerloo Theatre Project's production of Hamlet: What Dreams May Come will be performed July 17, 18, 19, 23 & 30 at 7 p.m. and July 25 at 2 p.m. at Academy Hall at the corner of 15th Street and College Avenue on the RPI campus in Troy, NY. There will be a Pay-What-You-Can Community Performance July 22 at 7 p.m. The show runs 90-minutes with no intermission and is suitable for ages 10 and up. Tickets are $16 each. Click to find out about the special discount for GailSez readers! Visit www.bakerloo.org for information about discount tickets and group rates.

copyright Gail M. Burns, 2009

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