Hamlet by William Shakespeare. Directed by John McManus
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
"Words of so sweet breath composed as made the things more rich."
Aryeh Lappin as Guildenstern, David Anderson as Hamlet, Aaron J. March as Rosencrantz; photo: Dan Udell
At this point in my life I never approach a play, such as Hamlet, with any expectations. I hope that the person in the title role will be consistent and be clear and be appropriately mad in the mad moments and totally clear in his intentions. I pray that the Gertrude will be true to the character as written. I expect the Ghost to be appropriately imposing and so on. Nine times out of ten I find that the "version" being performed is less than satisfying. So when it was announced that Walking the Dog Theater was doing this perfect piece of theater I was nervously intrigued. Their three-person Cyrano had been a miracle of good humor. Their three-person Gospel of John had been a mixed bag of character switching and religious fervor. How many actors would it take to fulfill my middling expectations for their Hamlet?
I was surprised to read, later, that this production would be a collaboration with two other theatrical entities in Columbia County: The Actors’ Ensemble and ShakespeareAlive! Both companies had produced shows I had thoroughly enjoyed. In the case of this collaborative Hamlet, I can now relate, three hours and thirty seven minutes flew by and produced many new wonders and an appreciation for what all three companies can achieve.
Done in modern dress using ten black piano chairs as their set, a cast that basically never leaves the stage - even during the most quiet and intimate moments of the play - performed an almost uncut edition of the show. Lines I had read but never heard performed before illuminated characters that were so well portrayed it was as though I was meeting some of them for the first time. Edgar Weinstock, for example, left his principal part as Polonius to play the Gravedigger’s companion. Shakespeare has always been known for his "low comedy" but this interplay between the singing warden of death and his friend is usually cut out leaving the gravedigger alone on stage with Hamlet and Horatio. Well, folks, Shakespeare knew what he was doing. A bit of comedy is just what is called for at this point in the play and that’s what Weinstock and Ben Luxon provide in a scene that could easily fall flat on its pratfall. Under the careful direction of John McManus this scene plays like water lapping over smooth rocks.
Ted Pugh and Fern Sloan, founders of The Actors’ Ensemble, take on the happily married couple Claudius and Gertrude. Their years of playing together in all sorts of dramas and comedies has given their interplay a magical reality of its own. While each of them quite perfectly plays the character, their moments together almost give us a sense of eavesdropping. Pugh’s Claudius has a suave and sophisticated smarminess to it, while Sloan’s Queen is easily his match in sophistication but retains an elegant self-centered sensibility that is dropped during her scene alone with her son.
The other woman in the play, Ophelia, is undertaken by Lilie Bytheway-Hoy. Her gentle playing is all the more beautiful when she loses her wits and takes on her foes with power and a tragic heartfelt expression of each other character’s true selves. McManus’ hands is visible here again as Ophelia’s tussle with madness over her many emotional losses creates a physical quirkiness allowing Bytheway-Hoy every advantage in playing her musical scenes.
As her brother Laertes, Aryeh Lappin is fascinating. His character is hard to grasp, difficult to pigeonhole. Who the man is in reality is hidden behind layers of facade which strip away scene by scene until his final confession in the last moments of the play. Lappin also played Guildenstern in a manner that included the most horrified facial expressions I’ve ever seen on any stage anywhere, a totally different interpretation than his Laertes.
His partner in crime, Rosencrantz, was played nicely by Aaron J. March with a manner that explains the affection he feels for Hamlet. Roberto Colosimo played Horatio and was, for me, the one indecipherable character. I could never quite understand who Horatio favored in this production: Hamlet, Claudius, Guildenstern or himself. This character can be enigmatic, after all he survives almost everyone else (by the end of the play there are eight main characters dead) and still has nice things to say without anger or rancor. Colosimo did not define his intentions at all and, while I usually like this character, on this occasion I never liked or trusted him.
Weinstock creates a very different Polonius. His manner with his lines makes him very clear and very understandable and though foolish, never a fool. Luxon is a brilliant Ghost, one of the best I’ve ever seen or heard. His voice is strong and definitive and his manner is perfect. Visually he is easily the brother of Claudius and exactly what Hamlet describes to his mother in the comparison of her two husbands.
To my surprise David Anderson, who was an excellent Roxanne and a less than desirable Jesus earlier this season, is a wonderful Hamlet. At the center of the play, and almost never out of our sight, he brought clarity and strength and a wonderful definition to this role. His princely demeanor and his human enjoyment of the fun of play-acting and the accidental joys of pretending madness were marvelous. His instant escape from his own role-playing in the court matched his quicksilver glances, his baiting of his betters and his obvious sadness over the loss of loved ones. There are no real highlights in his work here. Every moment is beautifully rendered. This has been a busy season of roles at the center of plays for Anderson, but it is as though this role is the one he was always working on, always preparing.
McManus has staged this play in modern dress but in the time of the language. Movement, gesture and the use of Deena Pewtherer’s effective and mood-creating lighting give his production its timelessness. Here is a legend made allegory. Underscored by Jonathan Talbott’s imperial and otherworldly music the production is nearly flawless.
I am not one to recommend that everyone see classical works, but this Hamlet, at the performance I attended, enthralled old-timers, seventh graders and a man with Turrette’s Syndrome. I would have to say that good theater was at work on the Stageworks/Hudson performance platform.
Lilie Bytheway-Hoy as Ophelia with Anderson's Hamlet; photo: Dan Udell
Ben Luxon as the Ghost and Anderson; photo: Dan Udell
Hamlet runs at Stageworks/Hudson in Hudson, New York through September 30 with evening performances at 7:30 and matinees at 2:00. Ticket Prices: $16-$20; Wednesday: all tickets $10. For information, and schedules call 518-755-1716, and for tickets call 1-800-838-3006 or go to www.wtdtheater.org.