nytheatre.com review by Michael Criscuolo
May 9, 2007
(For a detailed plot synopsis, click here.)
Gorilla Rep's blistering new revival of William Shakespeare's Hamlet is the first time this classic tragedy has not felt like a revenge story to me. I don't know if that's intentional or not, but it works. In the confident hands of director Christopher Carter Sanderson and his talented cast, Hamlet becomes the story of a man trying to heal his broken heart by making everyone around him hurt as much as he does. It's a refreshing approach that helps focus a play that, four centuries after its inception, still defies categorization and refuses to be shackled.
This production, dubbed an "indoor workshop" by the press release, also takes one big chance on purpose: it presents the text uncut, without an intermission. That's right: no intermission. In a curtain speech before the show, Sanderson encourages the audience to make their own intermission. Viewers may come and go as they please: the theatre door is left ajar for this very reason. It's a risky move that ends up paying off in spades. In the simplest sense, the experience is like watching a movie without commercial interruptions. But, in a larger sense, it exposes the audience to the wild, relentless energy of this unruly play, and may even make some (like myself) feel as if they're seeing it for the first time.
The focus is squarely on text interpretation in this intentionally bare bones production, and Sanderson and company have clear, illuminating ideas. Polonius is portrayed as a no-nonsense corporate know-it-all; Rosencrantz and Guildenstern come off like second-rate shysters (they particularly reminded me of the Mitchell Brothers); and Claudius is presented much as he's described at one point in the play: "like a mildewed ear."
Best of all is this production's take on the title character. As played by Jacob H. Knoll, Hamlet is undone by his own self-imposed isolation and solitude. He eats himself alive from the inside out with rage and sadness because he has no outlet for venting. Hamlet doesn't go crazy so much as he succumbs to the unhinged impoliteness of suffering. He does lose it a bit, though—none of this would possible if he didn't—and Knoll and Sanderson shrewdly show us exactly when it happens: right after Hamlet finds out how his father really died. In those first moments after the Ghost's departure, the audience can almost literally see Hamlet's brain short-circuiting. We witness the fracturing of his overloaded reason brought on by this new information, and compounded with his already shattered heart.
Hamlet, the character, is subsequently most grounded around the players. He feels at home with them, and talk of the theatre calms him. Which confirms a suspicion I've had for many moons: that Hamlet should've been an actor. He certainly has "the motive and the cue for passion." How things might've turned out differently for him if he'd really become the black sheep of the family by running off and joining the circus!
Knoll gives a confident and well-executed performance as Hamlet. He is comfortable with both the play's language and content, and ends up delivering probably the most well-rounded stage performance of this role I've seen. There are parts of his rendering that could still use some work—especially in the beginning, when he muscles his way through the play without completely earning his character's emotional mood transitions—but, overall, he hits most of the play's high points with bulls-eye accuracy.
Other acting honors go to Al Twanmo, who wrings more humor from Polonius than I ever thought possible; Jy Murphy, splendidly doing double duty as the First Gravedigger and the Player King, and making both roles count; and Jeff Barry's rock solid performance as Hamlet's second, Horatio. I should add, however, that the entire cast is uniformly terrific.
Sanderson sprinkles lots of nice little touches throughout the production. For instance, in his capacity as the show's sound man, Sanderson himself strikes the play's opening chimes of midnight on a shovel. Later, when Ophelia enters for the famous "Get thee to a nunnery" scene, she's reading the apocrypha (I laughed). And, Hamlet's pronunciation of the phrase "country matters" may make viewers either blush or guffaw (I think I did both).
There are parts of Hamlet that still need polishing—most notably its handling of Ophelia, a character who consistently defeats the best efforts of anyone who takes her on—but, on the whole, Sanderson and his gifted company have planted the seeds for what I think could be a definitive reading of this defiantly elusive text. Gorilla Rep's production is free of charge, so I urge all lovers of Shakespeare (and good theatre, in general) to check it out, and experience Shakespeare's seminal tragedy as you've never seen it before.