Mar. 21 Redhouse Theater: Hamlet

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Redhouse’s ‘Hamlet,’ set in the 1980s, is relevant, engaging — and fun

But the humor in the company’s unusual setting of Shakespeare’s celebrated tragedy comes at a cost to the play’s raw emotion and pathos

By Malkiel Choseed

What is the difference between tragedy and comedy?  The differences, while meaningful, are not as pronounced as one might think.  In both types of play, a conflict threatens to disrupt the extant social order or status quo.

In a comedy the conflict is resolved, and the characters and their social bonds, threatened but ultimately safe, are left whole.  (Mr. Roper threatens to kick Jack out of the apartment, but Chrissy and Janet find a way to change his mind before it is too late.)  With Shakespearean comedy, this is often symbolized in a marriage.  In a tragedy the conflict is unresolved, and the individual, family, or society is torn asunder — usually represented by the death of one or more of the main characters.  (Jack sacrifices himself to save Rose as the Titanic sinks.)

Hamlet is, of course, a tragedy, and as the final curtain falls, four main characters lie dead on the stage with a host of others having been killed onstage and off in earlier scenes.  What happens leading up to the ending, though, is not strictly defined.  Can a comedy have tragic elements?  Can a tragedy have comic elements?  This raises the question: If Hamlet is a tragedy, can it still be funny?  This is the challenge that Director Stephen Svoboda and his cast and crew have taken up in the present Redhouse production.

Even though this version of Hamlet is set in America sometime in the 1980’s (in what is assumed to be the royal palace under construction), it is essentially a faithful version of the celebrated Shakespearean tragedy.

The dialogue, though the source of the power of the Bard’s plays, can also be a barrier for an audience.  It is up to the actors and director to interpret and make meaningful what could otherwise be a mass of iambic pentameter lines and affected, English accents.  To their credit, the troupe of professional, semi-professional, and community actors in this production has done a good job in this regard.

While there were a few rough spots which will undoubtedly work themselves out, each of the 22 different actors in the 33 different roles delivered their lines not only in a rhythm and pacing that respected the beauty of the language but — through body language and eye contact — made it intelligible to an audience, as well.

Historically, Hamlet presents several difficulties for a director and company.  How old is Hamlet?  How should one depict Ophelia’s madness?  What is the relationship between Hamlet and Gertrude?   Director Stephen Svoboda has made some interesting choices — some conventional and some not.  For example, Rosencrantz (Marguerite Mitchell) and Guildenstern (Leila Dean), Hamlet’s childhood friends employed by the Claudius to spy on Hamlet, are women.  The women, dressed provocatively, introduce an element of sexuality to Hamlet that is not suggested in the text of the play itself.

The six principal actors, Adam Perabo as Hamlet, Steve Hayes as Polonius, Rachel Torba-Grage as Gertrude, Nathan Faudree as Claudius, Katie Gibson as Ophelia and Michael Raver as Laertes, are solid in their performances.  Each of them brings intensity, emotion, and humor when it is called for.  Steve Hayes risks stealing the show with his over-the-top portrayal of Polonius, getting laughs from the audience with just a well-timed glance.  In addition to reliable acting, Katie Gibson distinguishes herself with a beautiful singing voice.

The stage design is interesting in that there is one set throughout the entire play, with small props brought in as necessary to indicate scene changes.  A construction scaffold dominates the stage, providing for a multi-layered scene.  This simple backdrop allows the audience to focus on the actors and their words rather than a set.  The costumes and soundtrack work well and places this production squarely in the 1980s.  From King Claudius’ Miami Vice style clothes to Hamlet’s singing of U2’s With Or Without You to the explicit invocation of John Cusack’s character of Lloyd Dobler in Cameron Crowe’s 1989 Say Anything, this production practically screams the ‘80s.

All of this begs the question, though, as to why set this in the 1980s?  What does it bring to the play?  In the “Director’s Note,” Svoboda writes that he wanted to invoke the angst ridden, alienated teen characters of 1980s films to highlight the maturation process of Hamlet, who is, according to Svoboda, an alienated teen himself — seeking meaning and self-determination in the face of an uncaring system.

In this he is successful, but there is another, unspoken, element at work here.  While many modern productions ignore the comic elements of Hamlet, Svoboda and his actors succeed in making Hamlet fun.  And in doing so, they also make it relevant and engaging.

Historically, this is appropriate and true to Shakespeare’s time and intention. We do Shakespeare’s work a disservice by approaching it too seriously, by putting it on a pedestal.  This version certainly does not do that.  The costumes, the soundtrack, the knowing glances and comic pauses, all contribute to this.  This is the first production of Hamlet I have seen that regularly brought out belly laughs and guffaws.  For this, they should be applauded.

The difficulty with “fun” Hamlet, though, is that when you emphasize the humor and silliness it is hard to swing the pendulum back the other way, and fully engage with the pathos and raw emotion in the play.  It was hard to know when we were being set up for a joke and when we are supposed to take it seriously, or whether Hamlet or Claudius was being sincere or snarky.  True, both these characters consciously assume masks and false personas.  But if drama’s job is to reveal human truth and show the character in some real way, this production falls short.

Even with this weakness, however, the play is still fun and it works.  The small size of the theatre (just under a 100 seats) helps ensure that an audience member is in for a unique experience.  Even those in the last row are only 5 rows away from the stage.  When Perabo delivers his many monologues, interrogating his own motives and hesitancies, he moves about the stage locking eyes with every audience member for at least a moment or two.  The duel between Hamlet and Laertes in the final scene is done with full-size rapiers and large, athletic movements.  Imagine being in the front row, eye-level, five feet from the action.

Any theatre company that takes on Hamlet has its work cut out for it.  This is an extremely challenging and ambitious play in its own right, and is made more so because of its long history, varied past productions both on stage and screen, and the various cultural associations (both good and bad) it carries with it.  The Redhouse’s most recent staging is an enjoyable and engaging, but ultimately limited, Hamlet.  You’ll leave smiling — which is in itself, perhaps, a reason to go.

Details Box:
What: Shakespeare’s Hamlet at the Red House Arts Center
Who: The Red House Arts Center, 201 S. West St., Syracuse
Performance reviewed: 8 p.m. Friday, Mar. 21, 2014 (opening night)
Remaining performances: Plays through April 5
Length of performance: About 2 hours and 15 minutes, including intermission
Tickets: $30 general admission, $20 Red House members, call (315) 362-2785 or
Family guide: Adult themes, violence

Copyright 2014, CNY Cafe Momus

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