Dane in Vain: Hamlet

 

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by: JK Clarke

 

Alternate or avant-garde manipulations of Shakespeare are nothing new. They have, in fact, contributed mightily to the canon of notable productions since World War II. For all that have succeeded, innumerable productions have failed. What those successful endeavors all seem to have in common is an utter command of–and respect and love for–the source material by everyone from director to dramaturge to the players. In Hamlet: The Hip-Hopera, in this year’s New York International Fringe Festival (and now, inexplicably, a FringeFave selection – which may have more to do with a dedicated voting bloc of friends and family than actual merit), the lyric poetry of arguably the Bard’s greatest play is sliced and diced and skittered out into awkward hip-hop numbers.

Sure, the iambic pentameter, flow, and remarkably clever dialog of the play easily lends itself to the flow of rap or hip-hop’s cadence. And Hamlet’s brooding rage is not unlike the simmering fury of an equally insane Kanye West, but here it just doesn’t work. It is, instead, reminiscent of the co-opting of Doo-Wop (an early 1950s African-American-originated musical genre descended from R&B and Gospel) in the late 1950s by cringe-inducing, comparatively “stiff” white performers like Dion or The Gaylords. Rather than adding an insightful component to the play–as should an element added to a classic work in order to justify the alteration–many of the musical numbers are flat-footed, awkward or unnecessary. The production comes off feeling like a pastiche of disjointed, Hamlet-oriented sketches (a couple of which are entertaining, to be fair) rather than a play that flows from start to finish.

Hamlet: The Hip-Hopera also suffers from extremely uneven acting: Jesse Cannizzaro plays a beautifully-voiced, convincing Ophelia; Mark Ryan Anderson is a strong, sympathetic Laertes, a wonderful singer and a quite impressive swordsman (particularly for this production) who fences adeptly with both hands (!); and Steven Bono Jr. (King Hamlet’s Ghost and others) is clearly a superior actor. But these are the few standouts, who seem like ringers in an entry-level college production.

It’s easy to see where the grandiose notion of Hamlet: The Hip-Hopera came from. On its face it sounds compelling. But Tucker Delaney-Winn’s book and lyrics completely miss the mark, and, coupled with Phoebe Brooks’ direction, seem to turn Hamlet into something of a joke. Perhaps they would have been better off with a less serious, less beloved play, like, say, All’s Well That Ends Well or The Merry Wives of Windsor, which wouldn’t be terribly damaged by even an unsuccessful alternative approach. But for Hamlet, in this instance, it just doesn’t work.

Hamlet: The Hip-Hopera. Presented by the New York International Fringe Festival, 2015. Final performance (FringeFave): Sunday, August 30, 4.30 PM at Venue #3, Teatro LATEA at the Clement (107 Suffolk Street, between Rivington and Delancey). https://www.eventbrite.com/e/fringefave-hamlet-the-hip-hopera-fringenyc tickets-1-772-785-2484

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