Hamlet: A Stand UP
nytheatre.com review by Lyssa Mandel
August 14, 2007
There's a raucous party happening at the Gene Frankel Theatre and the only name on the guest list is Roger Westberg. No need for more attendees because in Hamlet: A Stand Up, Westberg takes on the whole cast of characters of Shakespeare's classic tale and easily peoples the stage better than 20 people could. In fact, if you close your eyes during the performance, you'll be hard-pressed to believe that all those voices emanate from only one mouth.
Swedish actor Westberg has toured this mini-masterpiece around the world since 1991 and the impeccable crafting shows. With the precise and able directing hand of Peter Engkvist, Westberg tackles the script—a brief and modernized but still eloquent telling, credited in the program to The Shakespeare Brothers—with physical and vocal dexterity and enough charisma for the Bard's whole canon. To even blink is to miss a valuable moment of Westberg's mime expertise, which makes the stage—barren except for a door-sized black structure at center—feel disarmingly like a castle, complete with banisters over which to fling spears and tables under which to tell secrets.
Besides Westberg's mastery of his body and voice, which are reason enough to want to watch him for hours, the script is admirably intricate and clever, with humor at times bordering on "Monty Python" silliness but never so much as to detract from the underlying story. All the familiar characters are given their due credit as key players, and Westberg uses the tool of gesture to distinguish one from another without skipping a beat: Hamlet, you'll notice, is the brooding, melodramatic one with his fist to his wincing eyes; evil king Claudius is the one lustily adjusting his crown.
Another unexpected if puzzling delight in this version of the Prince of Denmark's narrative of revenge is the added attention and stage time given to characters who usually fall into the background and go relatively unnoticed. Though the writers have retained the most crucial lines as written and given them bizarre twists—the famous "To be or not to be" speech is sung—they take the liberty of expanding or contracting particular scenes as they see fit, giving added flavor to usually bland roles. Bernardo and Marcello, the castle guards who are first to spot the Ghost of Hamlet's father, have grown distinctive, clownish, fidgety personalities of their own. The same can be said for the courtier Osrick, here depicted as foppish and lovably naïve, and even for the Ghost, who shape-shifts into a fly and resurfaces throughout.
Admirably, this version of Hamlet is not only for the Shakespeare scholar. Though it is doubly rewarding to watch the piece as someone familiar with the play, the material is in no way inaccessible. The very variety and richness of Westberg's work is more than enough to entertain nearly anyone for the hour and 40 minutes, which clocks in at well below the usual length of a Shakespeare play. With the accompaniment of original musical compositions by Jorgen Aggeklint, Westberg's sparkling presentation is nothing less than an absolute tour de force. If you can, catch Hamlet: A Stand Up at the 2007 FringeNYC before Roger Westberg escapes to another corner of the globe and brings the whole party with him.