photo courtesy of Curtis Brown Photography
Poor Yorick: David Henderson in Honest Pint Theatre's "uncut" Hamlet.
Through July 31
Leggett Theatre, William Peace University
Something was rotten—or clearly amiss, at least—as I topped the second-floor staircase outside Leggett Theatre at Peace University last Saturday night. Aisles of chairs were set out for mourners as an exquisitely dressed party conversed, perhaps a bit too convivially, near a coffin draped with the flag of Denmark. Meanwhile, in an outfit that hardly suggested widow’s weeds, Durham singer Mysti Mayhem lustily belted out the rock anachronism “Me and Bobby McGee” from the other end of the lobby.
Strange, I thought. But then, given the sinister circumstances of the death of King Hamlet, father of the title figure in Shakespeare’s famous tragedy, I reasoned that some cognitive dissonance wouldn’t be out of order at a gathering for his funeral. Score one for director Jeremy Fiebig, I thought.
Then one of the actors in this Honest Pint Theatre production
hailed me by name and asked me, clearly out of character, how my recent trip to Connecticut had gone. That friendly little chat persuaded me that I wasn’t standing in a surreal imaginative extension of Shakespeare’s ancient Denmark. It was just an extension of Leggett Theatre’s green room and back stage: a holding area for props and actors, dolled up enough to mislead us that we were on a set.
I pondered that oddity as I took my seat. But then actor Chris Milner bounded out to greet the audience, diving into a genial but lengthy curtain speech. He would repeat this behavior throughout the evening, abruptly breaching the closing scenes before intermissions with dilatory patter, directing us to the bathrooms and concessions, and delaying the second portion of the show to invite us to join the cast at a local bar later. On he rambled, in a discourse so steeped in just-plain-folks that I halfway expected him to start reciting the Stage Manager’s lines from Our Town
instead of Shakespeare when he finished.
I assume such overstated, in-your-face gestures were intended to underline the theatrical magic that Shakespeare—and Fiebig and his cast—were capable of producing. “We’ll show you the people and the props up front, strip away the artifice around the acts,” I can all but hear Fiebig saying, “and you’re still
going to believe this show.” That’s quite the theatrical dare to make. But give the man credit: For most of the night, that’s exactly what happened, despite an “uncut” script, stitched together from multiple quarto and folio sources, that runs about four hours.
It takes a lot of confidence and nerve to add some extra padding to all of that. But in addition to our stem-winding host, Fiebig also prefaces Hamlet’s three sections with live renditions of recent songs by Z.Z. Ward, The Oh Hellos, and Fun.
No matter. Go anyway. Hamlet
is Shakespeare’s longest play, almost never performed without significant cuts, and this production reveals the degree to which the richness of its story and its characters is usually diluted. Yes, there may well be a moment when you wish malicious pedant Polonius (Mark Phialas, in a career-best performance), suave then sinister Claudius (Simon Kaplan), or even Hamlet (artistic director David Henderson) would just cut to the chase. Still, by the end of the night, you won’t be able to deny you’ve been on a quite a ride.
Much of this is due to Honest Pint’s deep bench of fifteen actors, without a weak link among them. Henderson proves himself a theatrical Olympic swimmer as he cuts cleanly through the full complement of Shakespeare’s most portentous soliloquies. Still, an unabridged Hamlet
would be dead in the water if his supporting actors weren’t up to the same demands.
In addition to those praised above, we also note Tamara Farias’s icy charm as Queen Gertrude; the originality of Jim O’Brien’s calm, kingly recital of woes as the dead monarch; and Aaron Alderman’s broad-spectrum service in roles including vocalist, the foppish Osric, and an earthy gravedigger. Vera Varlamov’s Ophelia marks her second notable role in recent months (after playing Sylvia in Bare Theatre's Two Gentlemen of Verona
), while Milner and Brook North amuse as the perpetually baffled Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.
But after George Jack’s second-act soliloquy as the Player King fails to convince us that Polonius and Hamlet must pull him back from the edge of a mid-performance breakdown, Hamlet’s monologue about the theater, “Oh, what a rogue and peasant slave am I,” is underfunded. It’s also disappointing that Fiebig sheds no new light on the mystery of Ophelia’s madness, and the pace is repeatedly interrupted as the fourth hour looms, when heavy-handed lighting and sound cues momentarily stop the action after each fatality.
Despite these passing cavils, this production remains an achievement—an almost entirely compelling example of rock-solid subtext and rewarding dramaturgical research. In an ecosystem where we have frequently seen strong leading actors sabotaged by visibly uneven supporting roles, this Hamlet
is also a needed proof of concept. Knowing that Shakespeare can be cast this well, from stem to stern, with local actors, we’ll take note when that doesn’t happen in future productions.