Well, there is a reason that Hamlet is a seminal work in European literature. The situation and characters are strong and compelling. The play has withstood many adaptations and spoofs. This latest stab at sending up this classic is Antony Raymond’s Elsinore County. This company attacks the story of the Dane with great enthusiasm. Sometimes they are wildly successful and other times they seem to get lost in the enjoyment of their own humor.
The strongest part of this production is a company of young talented actors. New York is the center of the theatre in the United States because we have companies of actors like this – trained, talented and full of life. The playwright and director Antony Raymond seemed to want to take the play all the way to farce. As I said, Hamlet is a strong piece and can withstand the shift from tragedy to farce; Raymond as writer and director is successful to varying degrees.
Usually to elevate a play to farce, the writer will take one or two main qualities of the character and over-exaggerate them. Polonius instead of being the old windbag becomes more of a political Machiavelli which is appropriate with a younger actor playing the role. Nick Hetherington gives us a lovely generous Polonius with a dark and twisted political underbelly. It plays very well. Claudius as portrayed by Benjamin Bauman is really effective as a rather vapid Claudius who simply was a “douche bag” to quote the program. This carries us through most of the play but undercuts a bit of the drama at the end. The younger generation of characters as sort of witless college buddies also works well. Laertes being in love with Hamlet moved the plot along in some interesting ways.
This simplification of character did not work quite as well for the women. Gertrude is presented as simply a whore – with no character much beyond a desire to drink and misbehave with men. Ophelia is promiscuous. Basically the script did not give these talented actresses much of anything else to play. Reducing their characters to this oversimplified level was a bit disappointing. The incest that is sometimes played or hinted at in Shakespeare’s Hamlet has some very true and real psychological basis. In this version it seemed random and not organic to the plot. Catherine Cobb Ryan as Gertrude transcended the writing and made me want to see so much more of her both as an actress and, as a Gertrude with perhaps a bit more to play. Endowing Ophelia with a contemporary personality gave J.J. Pyle some interesting colors to play as Ophelia. The fall of Ophelia was not truly dealt with but some good strong strokes were taken to try to tell her story. There was an interesting character added to the play, a conflation of Rosencrantz and Gildenstern called Rosenstern. The role’s gender was also switched to a woman. As played by Sara Antkowiak, she became an enigmatic Deus ex Machina filled with sex appeal. I walked away wishing the writer had had more insight or compassion for the feminine characters in this story.
The original play, Hamlet, is driven by 5 complex and intriguing characters. Thinking of the play as a drama with the focus solely on Hamlet does a disservice to Claudius, Polonius, Gertrude and Ophelia. The dramatic structure of the play is as strong as they come. In this farcical version of the tragedy, they did not lean into the structure and given circumstances enough. In any future endeavors, I would encourage the playwright to trust the structure more and to be careful to make sure the abstractions he takes from the characters are central to those characters. Even in a farce, the actual events of the story do need to take place. Sometimes in this production, the humor received more attention than the dramatic action. This is a perilous mistake, for then the humor does not seem to have any purpose.
Interestingly enough, the play within the play was one of the strongest, funniest parts of the evening. In that section, the production relied on the structure as given by Shakespeare. The company updated the language and had a huge good time making the play into a Televisa episode. It was brilliantly funny. Eric Wdowiak as the Player Queen as portrayed by Laertes was simply delicious.
The staging for the production flowed well and they used the minimal stage effectively. Costuming as designed by Necessary Objects supported the actors well.
Over all, the production rollicked along and a good time was had by the talented cast. Perhaps splitting the jobs of writer and director might benefit a future production. Not all the humor in the play worked as intended and I think an outside eye as director would have caught this. Antony Raymond has succeeded in having four scripts produced in New York; I hope he finds a director he can work with to help deepen and clarify his work. He is already capable of inventive writing and inspiring a very talented crew of actors.