HAMLET, Powertap Productions and Rivendell Theatre Ensemble at Zebra Crossing Theatre, and HAMLET, Shakespeare Repertory. Innumerable obstacles confront any director tackling Hamlet, not least among them a title character who begins by declaring his wish to commit suicide and can't manage to do much of anything else for the ensuing five acts. But perhaps the director's primary challenge is finding a way to make this 400-year-old verse play full of archaic expressions and antiquated worldviews believable to a contemporary audience. Karen Kessler and Barbara Gaines, although they're directing for theaters on opposite ends of Chicago's economic spectrum, come up with the same inexplicable solution: they pretend they're directing Sam Shepard.
Instead of poetic lyricism, we get growls and spit. Instead of aristocratic relationships, we get actors pawing one another. Instead of blank verse, we get vernacular doggerel. Trying to make Hamlet "real," these directors encourage the actors to underline the literal meaning of every word, obliterating the text's intriguing ambiguities; and Kessler's staging for Powertap and Rivendell enacts every offstage moment described by a character, just in case we don't understand English. In both productions the actors get really, really upset whenever possible--although self-indulgent emotional displays seldom forward Elizabethan dramas, especially this one: Hamlet's towering intellect, not his petulant temper, is what motivates and confounds him. It seems Kessler and Gaines reasoned that three hours of yelling, sobbing, shaking, and sweating would turn a musty old play into compelling theater. Judging from the responses both productions have received, they were right.