nytheatre.com review by David Fuller
August 12, 2007
At the conclusion of what is perhaps Shakespeare's most famous play, the dying Hamlet speaks to his great friend Horatio and tells him: "Horatio, I am dead; Thou liv'st; report me and my cause aright to the unsatisfied... If thou didst ever hold me in thy heart, absent thee from felicity awhile, and in this harsh world draw thy breath in pain, to tell my story..." Horatio, a new play by Isabelle Assante, explores the character of Hamlet's friend by extrapolating events after Hamlet: how Horatio might have carried out the wishes of his dying friend; how he might have done what he says in Hamlet he is going to do: "...let me speak to the yet unknowing world how these things came about." Moreover, Horatio explores the emotional underpinning of a character that in Shakespeare's play is nearly a mere cipher.
Assante's means to her end is in itself quite clever—she has deconstructed the text from the First Folio edition of Hamlet and mixed and matched the lines to fashion dialogue for her own use, a massive and impressive undertaking. Her method is then to construct a plot positing that perhaps Horatio might have written a play to tell Hamlet's story; much like Shakespeare's Hamlet used the players to fashion "The Murder of Gonzago" in order to expose his Uncle Claudius as murderer-usurper. Further, Assante has Horatio use the troop of actors that Hamlet had used—pretty clever. Driving it all, the engine of the play is Horatio's grief at the loss of his friend, a grief with which he apparently cannot come to terms.
The play begins with Horatio (Richard Gallagher) and the players (Wayne Henry, Matthew Rini, Ian Alda, Matt Hussong, and Matt Stapleton) rehearsing the play Horatio has constructed, taken in part from the final duel as seen in Hamlet. The emotionally tortured Horatio then visits his friend's gravesite. What ensues are some clever plotting and dramaturgical reversals that will not be revealed here—it would spoil it for you. (All I will say is that Hamlet himself, played by John Pash, becomes a key figure.) Suffice to say that the acting is very, very good by this talented cast, the direction (by Troy Miller) is inventive and at times ingenious, the fight choreography (by Rini) is well done and its execution by the company is impressive. Even the music is nicely done and, in true ensemble fashion, all five of the players are credited with its composition.
All of these favorable elements would seem to mean a guaranteed enjoyable 80 minutes' flight of fancy (there is no intermission). And yet, I must write a caveat: Assante's use of Shakespeare's text got in the way for me. This might have everything to do with the fact that I am intimately acquainted with the original. As such, every time one of Assante's characters uttered a sentence I could not help but reflect back to the words in the original form. At first, this was a sort of double enjoyment: using known phrases in different context added interesting resonances. But since everything uttered was like this, it simply became too much—the terrific acting was being obfuscated by the ghost of the Bard himself. In the end, when Assante's tortured Hamlet uttered "my offence is rank," I could not help but replay the words as uttered by Shakespeare's profoundly tortured Claudius and judge the latter context superior. If, however, you have only a passing acquaintance with Hamlet, you may find Horatio quite wonderful. It is, as I said, clever, well-acted, and well-directed. For me, it is just a bit too clever.