Arian Moayed and Barzin Akhavan star in Waterwell's Hamlet, directed by Tom Ridgely, at Sheen Center.
Arian Moayed and Barzin Akhavan star in Waterwell's Hamlet, directed by Tom Ridgely, at Sheen Center.
(© Eric Michael Pearson)

The melancholy Dane has learned a new language.

In Waterwell's new production of Shakespeare's Hamlet at the Sheen Center for Thought and Culture, the young prince who's hell-bent on avenging his father's death speaks Farsi. Director Tom Ridgely has reset the work in Persia, circa 100 years ago. "Like Shakespeare's Denmark," he writes of his choice in a program note, "this was also a time of tremendous tension: a traditional way of life threatened by an evolving modern world, the land itself threatened by encroaching Western interests."

In short, this is a Hamlet that explores the eternal conflict between East and West. About 30 percent of the play is in Farsi, adapted by the company from the 1965 translation by Mahmoud Etemadzadeh. The rest is in English, adapted from the Arden Shakespeare third series and rearranged by the director. As a new look at one of the greatest plays ever written, Ridgely's production is worth seeing. However, despite many intriguing moments and ideas, it never shakes the feeling of being incomplete.

Language and costuming are Ridgley's primary ways of signifying the back-and-forth. The ghost of the late king Hamlet (Barzin Akhavan), whose death spurs the action, speaks Farsi, while Gertrude (Tony nominee Sherie Rene Scott), his Western bride who has remarried the brother who may have killed him (Claudius, played by Andrew Ramcharan Guilarte), speaks English exclusively.

Meanwhile, Hamlet himself (Arian Moayed) is bilingual. As the play begins, he speaks in English, as do the rest of the Kingdom. Similarly, Hamlet, like the King's counselor Polonius (Ajay Naidu) and his dear friend Horatio (Micah Stock), dresses in Western business suits. But when Hamlet is visited by the ghost of his father, who alleges that he was killed and cuckolded by his brother in an effort to usurp the throne, something snaps. Hamlet starts utilizing Farsi, the language of his father, and begins to dress in traditional Iranian clothing. English signifies Hamlet's everyday behavior, and Farsi represents his madness.

Unfortunately, that's just about as far as it goes. While hearing and being able to understand the intention of Shakespeare's text when it is spoken in a language other than our own, sans any sort of translation, proves how universal the work truly is, Ridgely and the company use the dual dialects to sub in for characterization, almost as though they spent the bulk of their rehearsal time on simply getting the words down. This mostly affects the performance of Moayed, an otherwise excellent actor who never seems quite comfortable in Hamlet's skin. However, he performs Hamlet's big speeches "trippingly on the tongue."

As for the supporting players, some of the actors have a better handle on it than others. Naidu's Polonius, for instance, is a hilarious chatterbox, while Scott is a regal, if inconsequential, Gertrude. Akhavan makes for a scarily imposing ghost, a performance nicely highlighted by Nina Vartanian's traditional Middle Eastern costuming, Reza Behjat's eerie lighting, and the pangs of frightening live music performed by Mohsen Namjoo and Yahya Alkhansa.

On the other end of the spectrum, Amir Arison and Sheila Vand are largely out to sea as Polonius' children Laertes and Ophelia. Stock plays Horatio with the same superficial aloofness that he used in his Tony-nominated Broadway turn in It's Only a Play.

Interpolating the political conflict between old values and new is a thought-provoking move, particularly in a centuries-old piece like this, one that's largely about the same subject matter. Perhaps with some more rehearsal time, the problems of this production would be smoothed out. But a Hamlet with big ideas up its sleeve is still a Hamlet worth watching.