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Collapsing “Hamlet”: hiSTORYstage Spins William Shakespeare’s Classic Tragedy — Literally

Marowitz Hamlet

EDITOR’S NOTE: Dawn Reno Langley is a Durham, NC-based author who writes novels, poetry, children’s books, and nonfiction books on many subjects, as well as theater reviews. She is also Dean of General Education and Developmental Studies at Piedmont Community College in Roxboro, where she oversees the theater program at the Kirby Cultural Arts Complex, and a member of the Person County Arts Council. To read all of Dawn Langley’s Triangle Review reviews online at Triangle Arts & Entertainment, click http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/author/dawn-reno-langle/. To read more of her writings, click http://dawnrenolangley.blogspot.com/ and http://poetryandgardening.blogspot.com/.

Imagine Cirque de Soleil and Shakespeare and flash fiction and you have hiSTORYstage Theatre Company’s version of The Marowitz Hamlet, which ran March 27-30 at Common Ground Theatre in Durham, NC. Strange combination, right? No stranger than Romeo and Juliet being re-composed as a gang war set in the boroughs of New York City, circa 1957. Everyone has a favorite way of re-envisioning Shakespeare’s classics and Charles Marowitz’s interpretation of the classic story of the young Hamlet dealing with his father’s murder and his mother’s infidelity, shortens the original five-act play, sometimes running it as a stream-of-consciousness story that somehow gives more depth to the underlying current of insanity the Shakespearean classic embodies.

The hiSTORYstage production of the play, set in a theater-in-the-round staging accented by a Cirque de Soleil hanging drapery, offers both a distinctive and unusual spin on the story. When the play opens, young Hamlet (Clint Lienau) lies on a pallet placed center stage, the hanging drapery wrapped around him like a bedspread. When he tosses it off at the first sight of the ghost of his father, the late King Hamlet of Denmark (Wayne Burtoft), the viewer think that the drapery might get in the way of the performance. Instead, it takes on its own life, becoming a pseudo-character, sometimes acting like a rope, sometimes acting like a curtain, and at still other times acting like a noose. After the initial introduction to the prop, the audience is instantly drawn into the tragedy studied by students for hundreds of years.

Director Rebecca C. Blum turns a unique performance of Marowitz’s version into a well-acted and cast performance with both seasoned actors and stage “virgins” collaborating to create a play where the timing is as important as the soliloquies. Hamlet’s Ghost, played by Wayne Burtoft, is the conscience of the play; and it requires both a stately persona and a resonant voice in order to be believable. Burtoft provides both, as well as a substantial appearance that underscores the commands he utters to his son, especially when he demands that Hamlet seek revenge for his “most foul and unnatural murder.”

Other characters are also well-cast, including the tenderly insane Ophelia, played with sensitivity (and a voice) by Stephanie Rinehart. Her portrayal is not only accurate but believable. Though the playbill states this is her first journey into Shakespeare’s world, it appears she has laid a strong foundation for her acting career prior to this performance.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, played with a bumbling, joined-at-the-hip, and frantic nature by Diana McQueen and Ruth Berry, are Marowitz’s statement on the “absurdity of life”; and it is that philosophy they embody throughout their disconnected statements on Hamlet’s life and actions. Both women are also new to the stage, yet their timing offers verve to the sycophantic duo responsible for transferring messages between kingdoms.

As the cheating Gertrude, Sarah Schmitt exercises her years of acting experience and gives credence to the confusion Gertrude feels. It is around this indiscretion that the play revolves, and Schmitt is a believable regal woman caught up in the all-too-human act of falling for another man while married to a powerful politician. When she looks up at R. Alex Davis’s Claudius, her passion for him is palpable. That complex passion is underscored by the casting of Davis, a character who appears to be the “boy toy” to King Hamlet’s older statesman. As the preening and conceited Claudius, Davis is sufficiently dislikable, as he should be.

Laertes (John Minervino) struggles with his allegiance to Hamlet and his tendency to overprotect his sister, Ophelia; and though his time on stage is fairly short, Minervino meets the challenge of meandering into conversations and offering a moral high point to the fairly dysfunctional families.

The young Hamlet, bewildered and angered by his mother’s murderous intentions, is one of the most complex of all Shakespearean characters to play. The many soliloquies and subterfuge prescribed to Hamlet requires an intensity and a depth few actors can reach at a young age. This Hamlet, played by Clint Lienau, appears more nervous and confused than intent on gaining revenge for his father’s murder. At times, his slight frame appears to collapse in on itself rather than to puff up and strengthen. Though Lienau’s acting is adequate, this is the one character that may have benefited from a better casting decision.

The one character who is absolutely perfect in his role is the Clown, Seth Blum, a veteran of many Shakespearean roles and husband of the director. As Hamlet’s “mirror,” the Clown gives voice to the young prince’s imagination and questionings. Blum blithely offers commentary on the actions of the other characters, as well as snippy advice to young Hamlet. He brightens the stage with his antics and evidences a strong capability of acting the wise fool that is a Shakespearean standard.

Though the strobe light sequence is not only unnecessary but, at times, disturbing, the set lighting worked to dramatize the play’s abridged scenes. By punctuating the scenes that often drifted in and out of one setting and one character to another, the lighting assisted the audience in understanding how swiftly the Marowitz version of the play moved throughout an otherwise interminable five acts. One supposes that one artifice (the Cirque de Soleil drapery) might have been enough for this nonlinear summary; however, the strobe did serve to remind the audience of the postmodern elements of Marowitz’s version of the tragic Hamlet.

THE MAROWITZ HAMLET (hiSTORY Stage, March 27-30 at Common Ground Theatre in Durham, NC).

SHOW: http://www.historystage.org/The_Marowitz_Hamlet.html.

VIDEO PREVIEW: http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=qX6P1gpYQsI.

SEASON: http://www.historystage.org/Season.html.

PRESENTER: http://www.historystage.org/Home.html.

VENUE: http://www.cgtheatre.com/.

OTHER LINKS:

The Marowitz Hamlet (play): http://www.dramatists.com/cgi-bin/db/single.asp?key=4474 (Dramatists Play Service, Inc.).

Charles Marowitz (playwright): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_Marowitz (Wikipedia).