nytheatre.com review by Charles Battersby
June 30, 2005
The American Theatre of Actors production of Hamlet goes for a barebones, straightforward approach to the play. It’s set in a timeless period, in modern dress, and makes no attempt to alter the fundamentals of the play. It’s a refreshing change to see a classic produced without the director trying to re-interpret or modernize it (all too frequent nowadays). Alas, while there’s no needless directorial tampering, there isn’t much of a guiding personality behind the ATA’s Hamlet, either.
In director James Jennings’s production, there’s almost no design present at all. Virtually no set, or sound, and very simple lighting too. Costumes are more or less present day (though Ophelia and Gertrude wear some fancy gowns that aren't quite 21st century). Props are only used when absolutely necessary needed as well. This creates a rather generic-looking interpretation of Elsinore and its denizens. It even seems that the only set pieces, a pair of curtains, are merely there because the script requires a curtain in Polonius’s death scene.
This approach gives the audience the chance to savor the text, without needless meddling from a director, and there certainly is enough going on in the text to hold the attention of a Shakespeare geek or drama scholar. Unfortunately this bare-bones production doesn't offer much of interest beyond the academics of hearing the script spoken aloud.
Take, for example the moment when the Ghost of Hamlet's Father appears and demands that Hamlet take revenge by killing the new king. Aside from the dialogue, there's nothing to indicate that the Ghost is supposed to be a terrifying specter; no light or sound change, no makeup. Some guy in a suit just walks onstage, rather nonchalantly, and demands vengeance for murder most foul.
Another problem with the lack of design is that voices are easily lost on the large, empty stage, and actors often have the choice of bellowing their lines or having their dialogue lost in this rather large off-off-Broadway theatre.
Although Josh Stamell is a capable Hamlet, most of the cast is lackluster, particularly the minor players. This often leads to one-sided scenes where the humor of say, the Gravedigger's speeches is lost, but the "Alas, poor Yorick" lines are well-delivered.
There’s nothing wrong with giving a by-the-numbers run of a classic, if it’s well-produced. Shakespeare knew what he was doing, and every production of a classic doesn’t have to have some visionary “Take” on the play. However, even the greatest play ever written needs more than an empty black box theatre and mediocre performances to captivate an audience for over three hours. While the ATA’s intentions are commendable, their show is not.