Arts & Culture

Trinity Rep reimagines ‘Hamlet’ through the absurd

Cultural mainstay gets ‘fresh’ treatment in local theater company’s production

By
Staff Writer
Friday, October 31, 2014

My first experience with “Hamlet” was watching an episode of “The Simpsons.” Bart was the thought-tormented prince, Marge was Gertrude, Moe was Claudius and Homer was the ghost of the dead King Hamlet. To a young boy of five or six, thrilled by the opportunity of maturity, nothing could be more spectacular.

But, then again, maybe this was not my first experience: “Hamlet” is so engrained in the collective literary memory that it’s not really possible to remember a time before it. “Shakespeare one gets acquainted with without knowing how,” said Henry Crawford in Jane Austen’s “Mansfield Park.”

Or as the Harvard Shakespearean scholar Marjorie Garber suggested in the New York Times, “Shakespeare in our culture is already disseminated, scattered, appropriated, part of the cultural language, high and low … [he] is already not only modern but postmodern: a simulacrum, a replicant, a montage, a bricolage. A collection of found objects, repurposed as art.”

In the Brown/Trinity Rep MFA Program’s latest iteration of the play, which opened Wednesday and runs through Nov. 2, Hamlet is more Bart Simpson than Kenneth Branagh. Gone is the brooding young man, caustic and melancholy in his despair. Instead, a woman, Nicole Davis GS, plays the role of Hamlet — a grinning, manic figure, playful with the absurdity around her. Compared to this tremendous shift in the tone of the character, the performer’s gender seems a minor revision. Abandoning the traditionally black clothes of mourning, she wears footsie pajamas and carries around a blanket for much of the play, presenting Hamlet as an infantile figure, lost without her father.

Davis casts a dead-eyed glance towards the audience as she chops logic in a cheerful, methodical voice. She depicts madness in its most alienating form: Hamlet’s wit becomes farcical and silly when paired with an outstretched high-five and an approval-seeking smile; her sorrow dulled by an adolescent expression of rage; her flirtations with death less an exploration of universal existential questions and more a performance of insanity incarnate. It’s a bold and polarizing gambit for the director, James Palmer GS, leaving the viewers as equally disturbed by Hamlet’s feigned madness as the characters are.

“Hamlet is an incredible role for an actor, a truly great actor showcase,” said Brian McEleney, head of the Brown/Trinity Acting MFA program and clinical professor of theater arts and performance arts. “Shakespeare really perfected the soliloquies that make up the center of the play, and the role has a lot of inner conflict, as well as being extraordinarily open to interpretation.”

“Most productions have great Hamlets,” he added, “but the best have great people all about him. If you can get a great company, you can get a great ‘Hamlet.’”

Ophelia, played by Alex Woodruff GS, follows Hamlet in the strain of childish madness, holding a large teddy bear and clad in overalls and a white t-shirt. She dances about the stage even before Polonius’s death, simultaneously tickled and frightened at Hamlet’s lustful suggestions of romance. Despite stern counsel from her father, her brother and Hamlet, there’s not a shred of a doubt here about Ophelia’s chastity. It’s a strange sight to see Hamlet clad in pajamas yelling at Ophelia as she plays with her teddy bear to get to a nunnery.

Kyle Terry GS, as both Claudius and the Ghost of King Hamlet, provides a stark contrast to the characters of Hamlet and Ophelia. With his deep, powerful voice and well-tailored suits, he’s the image of adulthood as seen from a child’s perspective — intimidating and authoritative. Terry seems more commanding than outright villainous, which complicates the allegiance of the viewer.

Trinity’s stage is brightly lit and minimalist, and, aside from the play within a play, it remains devoid of any form of prop or pageantry. The ghost of Yorick provides the most brilliant set piece. Dressed in full clown regalia, he wanders the stage, mute except for the musical accompaniment he provides, and serves as a constant reminder of both mortality and absurdity.

“‘Hamlet’ is an interpretive sponge,” said Professor of English Richard Rambuss, who teaches the course ENGL 1311K: “Hamlet in Theory.” “Every theory has their own ‘Hamlet’ — psychoanalysis, feminism, Marxism, deconstructionism and queer theory. In its own time people talked about ‘Hamlet’ as ‘the play with the ghost.’ They loved it for seeming antique or old-fashioned. Today we see the play as moving towards the modern, an examination of performance and identity.”

Rambuss noted how theorists and directors are constantly “trying to find new ways to make ‘Hamlet’ fresh,” to find something innovative in a kind of “secular scripture” with “an utterly unique capacity to encompass a wide variety of interpretations.”

Trinity Rep’s version is Shakespeare by way of Beckett, preferring the absurd, the allegorical and the comic above the brooding, melancholic contemplations of death. As Shakespeare has been repurposed, adapted, deconstructed and spliced back together into a collage of modern cultural allusions, his plays — in particular “Hamlet” — have also been redeveloped and conceptualized according to the ideas of its day. There’s a wonderfully bizarre osmosis between Shakespeare’s stage and society, as though with every new shift in the cultural zeitgeist, a new line or phrase emerges in his text. Or is it the other way around?

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