Hamlet | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader
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HAMLET

Belligerent Bard Productions

at Cafe Voltaire

Watching Belligerent Bard's production of Hamlet, I couldn't help but remember an encounter I once had with a professional mover. Our office was being moved down seven floors, and I had spent the last five minutes trying to maneuver a six-foot filing cabinet, straining every muscle I had. The mover walked in, with his heavy-duty gloves and his back brace, and gracefully scooping up my 300-pound desk with his dolly admonished, "Don't work hard, work smart."

The cast of Hamlet spends far too much time working hard. Which is a shame, because in those few scenes where craft supersedes histrionics, where the actors rely on the tools of acting rather than emotional displays, this production achieves a clarity and dramatic urgency rare in contemporary productions of Shakespeare.

In fact, the first act of this Hamlet is perhaps the most successful 20 minutes of Shakespeare I've seen onstage. From the tense, hushed opening on the castle wall, where Barnado (Brian McCaskill), Marcellus (J.T. Gorham), and Horatio (Mark Salamon) see the ghost of the recently deceased king (Bob Fisher), to the feigned charm of the court of Claudius (Ted Rubenstein) and Gertrude (Deirdre Waters), to the explosive encounter between Hamlet (Benjamin Werling) and the ghost of his father, this first act is characterized by passionate restraint. Director Louis Contey's staging is efficient and formal, his actors for the most part remaining stationary or moving in simple patterns and delivering the text straightforwardly. The cast seems to understand that Shakespeare's text requires subtlety rather than force.

When we first meet Hamlet, brooding in the sumptuous court, he hardly speaks, and when he does it's in a near-monotone, as if he were holding some enormous passion in check. His mystery is seductive. Werling delivers the remarkably dark line "I have that within which passes show, / These but the trappings and the suits of woe" with utter simplicity, as if merely stating the truth. His words are enough to characterize his emotional state, more effective than any attempt to display emotion. Shakespeare's poetic language is made easily accessible to the audience in a moment that is completely honest and dramatically compelling.

Later, however, this restraint gives way to an emotional overindulgence that's disappointingly amateurish compared to the maturity of the opening act. Actors spend more time trying to convince us and themselves that they feel the enormous passions of their characters than in letting us feel those emotions with them. Whether it's Hamlet writhing through "To be or not to be," Ophelia (Shawna Franks) tearing about the stage in a show of madness, or Laertes (McCaskill) howling for revenge, the actors try to do all the work for us, in effect keeping the play to themselves. All that's left us is to marvel at how carried away these actors get. They doth protest too much, methinks.

Contey's rather random blocking and designer Nanette M. Acosta's spotty lighting, which leaves a good portion of the playing area in the dark, don't help matters. Certainly the play demands of its actors a great emotional range, but the fatal mistake is attempting to match the text emotion for emotion. Drama is most often created when there's a distance between a feeling and its articulation. In this production, Hamlet's rhapsodizing upon the skull of the man he once knew ("Here hung those lips that I have kiss'd I know not how oft") is powerful because, though the actor displays very little, we can sense the debilitating effect his thoughts have on him. On the other hand, Hamlet becomes so carried away with his rejection of Ophelia ("Get thee to a nunnery") that the scene's almost comical.

This production is further hampered by enormous cuts in the text. Much of the encounter between Hamlet and the traveling players is gone, including the pivotal scene in which Hamlet, overwhelmed by a fictional story an actor tells, stands bewildered in the face of his own inability to revenge his father's death. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are also gone, taking from Hamlet, among other things, his "What a piece of work is man" speech, where he again confronts his own utter detachment. Overall, what has been eliminated or minimized in this production are those factors that prevent Hamlet from taking action. Yet it's just this hesitation, this paralysis in a world seemingly devoid of meaning, that provides the dramatic core of the play.

In this production Hamlet is primarily a man of action. He dives into nearly every scene, literally out of breath for much of the evening. And this Hamlet is all the more curious in light of Belligerent Bard's press release, which says that the production "focuses primarily on the constant struggle between thought and action." But as it turns out, this Hamlet struggles very little, making for an evening that's disappointingly thin.

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