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Act Before You Speak

This visual, wordless experimental take on Hamlet succeeds in being a visceral theatrical experience.

By New York City
Marie Godeau and Alexandra Zelman-Doring
in Act Before You Speak
(© Adolfo Doring)
Marie Godeau and Alexandra Zelman-Doring
in Act Before You Speak
(© Adolfo Doring)
No character in the history of the theater talks more and acts less than Prince Hamlet. So, rather cleverly and ambitiously, Alexandra Zelman-Doring, in collaboration with Ada Gafter O'Higgins and Jeffrey Landman, has created a one-hour performance piece called Act Before You Speak, the Tragic History of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, now at The Flea, that puts Hamlet in motion.

Here, the Prince of Denmark gets to tell his story -- or at least the highlights of his story - in physical terms that eschew words for a rare form of high theatricality that translates music and movement into storytelling.

The creators of Act Before You Speak assume that the audience has arrived with an essential knowledge of Hamlet. So if you don't know the play, you won't have a clue about what's happening in front of you. Even if you do know the play, there will be times you will be clueless.

Nevertheless, you will probably still be both engaged and enchanted by the bold effort to invest the character of Hamlet (played by Alexandra Zelman-Doring) and Ophelia, Guildenstern, Queen Gertrude, the Gravedigger, and Horatio (all played by Marie Godeau) with personality, attitude, and a vivid physical emotionality. In addition, Ana Milosavljevic is a major on-stage presence as The Ghost, playing the violin and performing music she co-wrote with by Jiri Kaderabeck and Mahir Cetiz.

The piece is performed on an almost bare stage that has been ingeniously designed by Jeffrey Landman. Secret compartments in the floor reveal everything from Yorick's gravesite where socks instead of skulls, are unearthed, to a little nook where a glass of poisoned wine awaits a pre-ordained finale. The lighting by Isabella F. Byrd smartly guides our eyes to exactly what we need to see, when we need to see it.

Through all of this, Zelman-Doring holds the stage with authority, taunting Guildenstern, whirling with Ophelia, importuning Gertrude -- always in a tug of emotions, sometimes pushing Godeau away, and sometimes, in fact, waiting for Godeau, (Yes, one can feel the influence of Beckett on this piece from start to finish). The two actors are exciting to watch, and the violinist is exquisite.

Director Hedvig Claesson keeps everything so visual and kinetic -- and short -- that the play neither wears out its novelty of expression nor does it push beyond the experimental into the precious. Of course, the idea of Shakespeare without words seems like a trepidatious undertaking, but there is something honest and intrinsically artful in this work that makes it compelling.


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