Revenge of a King
nytheatre.com review by Tim Cusack
August 13, 2006
Aight, Imma gonna check it right here, right now—go see this show. As in drag your sorry mouse up to your bookmarked websites, click on FringeNYC.org, and order your tickets. IMMEDIATELY. Because a show like Revenge of a King is the REASON the Fringe exists. Is it perfect? No. Is it the most polished theatrical spectacle I've ever seen? No. But it's whip smart, outrageously funny, rooted in the specificities of language and mores of its community, devastating in its emotional power, full of heart, and sheds new illumination on the most overanalyzed play in all of English literature. Now are you convinced? Go ahead. I'll wait right here for you while you buy your tickets.
Done? Good. Now I'll tell you why I liked this show so much—it made me damn glad to be alive. It gave me hope for the future of theatre in this country. It moved me to see Herb Newsome, the adaptor, star, and choreographer kicking serious derriere in all three domains—a direct rebuke to an institutional culture that demands specialization from its artists. And this show has something important to say about the condition of Black folks in our society and manages to say it using the story of Hamlet—the ultimate neurotic white guy. Oh, yeah, and it's a show geared towards kids that adults will find engaging. Now that's what I call theatrical alchemy.
Transposing the action from Elsinore to the fictitious Denmark Avenue in what appears to be Brooklyn, Revenge of a King focuses on Hamilton King (Newsome), the scion of a powerful political dynasty (think Major Owens). But the King family isn't living some bougie Cosby dream—they're still in the ghetto, hanging with the local street gangs and taking part in block parties. When Hamilton's mother marries the oily Jean Claude Rameau (the marvelous James Edward Lee) after her husband's death, the audience instinctively understands, given how small and insular this world is, how impossible it is for Hamilton to protest or raise a stink.
With the exception of a subplot involving a murdered campaign intern that upon closer examination only muddies the story, Newsome's adaptation is razor sharp and moves like lightning, condensing Shakespeare's action into one dreadful weekend in the 'hood. This is the first production I've seen where Hamlet's youth is rendered convincingly—not to mention his rage. It's also the most moving depiction of Ophelia's memorial service I can remember. And his idea to transform the play-within-a-play into a freestyle rap showdown is nothing less than a stroke of genius. Abetted by the machine-gun delivery of Glenn Gordon's MCing, Newsome injects a shot of dramaturgical Viagra into the tiredest climax in post-Renaissance theatre.
But after all, it's his language, like the Bard's, that continually amazes. I'd make a clumsy attempt to quote his raps, but that would be beyond lame. Suffice to say, all of Hamlet's greatest soliloquized hits are here, but like the very best hip-hop tracks, Newsome takes tunes we've heard thousands of times before, and through sheer skill and imagination, cuts them up and remixes them into something new and astonishing.