by JK Clarke
Inherent in taking a risk with a theatrical production, as with any risk, is that the chance for failure is significantly increased. When the gambit succeeds the payoff is a delight, so it’s hard to hold a grudge when a director and/or company takes a chance that falls short. Unfortunately, New York Shakespeare Exchange’s latest offering, Hamlet^10, directed and adapted by Ross Williams, is defined more by its shortcomings than its successes. The “10” in the play’s name is meant to indicate the mathematical “to the tenth power,” which in this case means that 10 different actors (five women and five men) play Hamlet during the production. It’s a nice conceit, but one that just doesn’t work . . . at least in this version.
The first problem with having ten actors play one of the most complex characters in the history of theater is that the audience loses the opportunity to connect with the character. Each time a different actor plays him we have to re-identify and re-acquaint. Yes, he’s a multi-layered guy who has countless different personalities inside him. Most complex characters have several. But that’s the intrigue behind getting to know a character as an actor is portraying him. We see the nuances of the performance that allow us to get to know this version of Hamlet and become more deeply involved in his pathos. When the actor changes, we are forced to re-set and start the process again. As an actor or director, it may be an interesting means of study; as an audience member it’s not an appealing approach. Secondly, if one actor is particularly adept at playing Hamlet and the next actor playing him is not (as was the case in this production . . . multiple times), we end up disappointed that we are not watching the better performer deliver the rich, beautiful, endlessly fascinating lines. And lastly, the idea of casting everyone in the play as the most coveted role in all of theater smacks of “everyone gets a trophy” culture and an unwillingness to award the most competent actor the most difficult role. Not every actor should play Hamlet in general; nor, more specifically, should every actor in this production.
To make matters worse, Williams (who directed the excellent Titus Andronicus last year) has his 10-pack of Hamlets speak some of the more famous speeches in unison, beginning the play quite startlingly with the “Oh that this too, too solid flesh would melt,” speech, which some might argue has no business whatsoever being delivered at the opening of the play (it being from the end of a gruelling Act I, scene 2). The bigger issue, however, is that the Flamboyan Theater acoustics are completely wrong for a chorus of Hamlets: we can neither understand, nor bear to listen to (it’s actually painful to the ears) the voices which ricochet off the facility’s concrete surfaces.
However, the production’s high points shouldn’t be ignored, for for they would augment an otherwise robust production. The set (Jason Lajka) is a collection modular blocks reminiscent of the online video game Minecraft that are re-purposed with every scene. And Elivia Bovenzi’s deliberately subtle, dark costumes are modern at their core, but with hints of the medieval: Queen Gertrude (Julia Watt) who is compellingly played as sexier and younger than we’re used to seeing and wears modern, leather black pants, but with a deep blue top punctuated by an armor-like copper colored breast plate of a mottled metal-looking material, adding layers to the already intriguing character interpretation. Julie Delaurier stood out as a compelling Polonius who was just the right mix of doddering and genial; and Harry Barandes was not only a very strong Horatio, but the most compelling Hamlet of the bunch (and who should have performed the role alone).
While New York Shakespeare Exchange should be commended for their ambitious, and usually absorbing re-workings of the Bard, in this instance they have “shot [their] arrow o’er the house,” somewhere on the order of “to the power of nine.”
Hamlet^10. Through April 9 at The Flamboyan Theater at The Clemente (107 Suffolk Street, between Rivington and Delancey). www.ShakespeareExchange.org
Photos: Martin Harris