“Brevity is the soul of wit,” wrote Shakespeare. In the hands of director Ellen Beckerman, brevity is also the soul of drama. Beckerman’s spirited, 90-minute adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet at HERE favorably trims the lengthy tragedy to its most essential plot points: Hamlet madly ponders whether “to be or not to be”; Polonius is murdered; Ophelia drowns; and the curtain still falls on the bodies of Laertes, Claudius, Gertrude and Hamlet.
Purists may take offense at this condensed version of Hamlet, but Beckerman does not seem concerned about angering fanatics who can recite soliloquies in their sleep. This production is for people who don’t mind that The Donkey Show adds disco to A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream or that The Bomb-itty of Errors interjects rap into Shakespeare’s A Comedy of Errors.
Downtown audiences, it seems, prefer to have their Bard bastardized. Over the past year, open-minded theatergoers have seen Romeo and Juliet making love in an alley way outside of the Present Company’s Theatorium, and Shakespeare himself lusting after a young man in Naked Will at P.S. 122. This current, stark presentation of Hamlet places the gifted seven-member ensemble, lead by James Saidy in the title role, upon a bare stage filled with Michael O’Connor’s dynamic lighting, and a musical score featuring classical compositions, industrial sounds, jazz, ’80s pop and heavy metal.
The music is not always used successfully. Choosing not to underscore most of the dialogue, Beckerman’s musical selections occasionally stop abruptly, creating a sharp, inappropriately jarring cut between the text and the production’s less traditional elements. Watching Beckerman’s Hamlet is like channel swapping between PBS’ Great Performances and MTV’s Fashionably Loud. The entire cast displays an expressive talent for movement, but the mid-show addition of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”–complete with bits of the video’s original choreography–is a questionable lapse in directorial judgment. Nevertheless, Beckerman has a tremendous sense of space, movement and direction, so the decision to use “Thriller” is one that can be easily forgiven.
Dressed in James Aaron’s interesting mix of 1940s military fashions and Banana Republic chic, the barefooted actors look as well as they move and speak. With his good looks and deep, ready-for-voiceovers voice, Saidy has an admirable command of the Shakespearean language, and connects well with the other actors. Giving a strong performance as Horatio is Josh Conklin, who (in a directorial touch by Beckerman) channels the ghost of Hamlet’s father. As Hamlet’s mother Gertrude, Sheri Graubert performs with a cool sensuality, leaving no one to question why Claudius (Shaw Fagan) would kill his brother and claim Gertrude as his wife and queen. Rounding out this engaging cast is C. Andrew Bauer, Taylor Bowyer and Elliott Kennerson.
Due to illness, Margot Ebling was unable to perform as Ophelia last Friday. Instead, members of the cast took turns playing the role. Christened as “the Ophelia incident” by the director prior to the show’s start, this casting change did not hamper the production. Actually, it enhanced the experimental aspects of the evening. Having Graubert and male cast members intermittently play Ophelia added an interesting subtext to the show without distracting from Beckerman’s rehearsed direction.
As with The Big Art Group’s The Balladeer, Collision Theory’s Incorporated and 6 Figure’s Rita Faye Pruitte, Beckerman & Company’s Hamlet is one of several productions from emerging theatrical companies with roots in New York’s International Fringe Festival. Described as “the crowning moment” of the 1998 Fringe Festival by Variety, Beckerman’s Alice’s Evidence subsequently played at Soho Rep, HERE and Henry Street Settlement.
Beckerman’s other directing credits include Woyzeck, Goose and Tomtom, Antigone, Saints and Singing and Foam. Her offbeat, expressionistic version of Hamlet is yet another praise-worthy production, and should leave audiences eagerly awaiting the company’s future endeavors. As Shakespeare himself knows, “Madness in great ones must not unwatch’d go.”