There's a saying for almost everything in theater. So when an unrecoverable disaster strikes mere hours before opening—a set gets smashed, the lead actually breaks a leg—count on someone for this sore-arm wisecrack: "Well, changes keep a show fresh."
Funny thing though: Sometimes, changes do just that, as in Little Green Pig's fall opener. Its title, HMLT, telegraphs director Jaybird O'Berski's intent to stage a brief, essentialized take on Shakespeare's Hamlet. Still, the final version is a lot more stripped than initially intended.
After unresolvable noise issues at Cordoba Center for the Arts forced the group to abandon the venue the weekend before opening, the original sets, blocking and tech all had to be jettisoned in a desperate scramble to find another space.
Five nights later, in Durham's Oval Park, a production shaken to the bone went up. Its stage: a sidewalk adjacent to three brick terraces for the audience. No set, save for an occasional wooden bench. Illumination? Two flashlights, held by stage managers JaMeeka Holloway-Burrell and Kristian King—plus a few streetlights in the distance.
The unexpected result? One of the strongest, freshest Hamlets I've witnessed in years.
We've come to expect O'Berski to unearth present truths from ancient texts; hmlt does not disappoint. At the outset, Caitlin Wells' sharp Ophelia and Nick Prey's Laertes are children of privilege, squabbling as the older brother packs for college. Meanwhile, Dale Wolf's fusty, fine Polonius bores his kids with useless back-to-school advice.
But darkness isn't long in coming, as Jade Arnold's well-sculpted Hamlet receives word from the loyal—if slightly slow—Horatio (Dana Marks) that his father's ghost walked the night before. (A selfie is Horatio's up-to-date proof.)
The ghost (dour, no-nonsense Ian Bowater, costumed like a Chicago bluesman in dark suit and dark glasses) accosts Hamlet thereafter, and the famous conflict ensues.
A tight ensemble locks into Shakespeare's text, finding refreshing new subtexts. Arnold convincingly surfs early soliloquies before an unconventional version of "To be or not to be." His chemistry with Wells' Ophelia is superb, before his interactions with frat boys Rosencrantz (Germain Choffart) and Guildenstern (Shelby Hahn) come to a nicely sharpened point.
Imaginative, amusing cultural updates riddle the text. A modern-day technical innovation scuttles Dan Oliver's brilliant audition piece as the Player King, and the fatal duel between Laertes and Hamlet is not fought with rapiers.
But in O'Berski's barebones play-within-a-play that catches King Claudius (Jeff Alguire) and baffles Queen Gertrude (Susannah Hough), Oliver and Mara Thomas (as the Player Queen) clearly stand before the royal court as their judges, not their entertainers. The moment wasn't the first or last to chill me in a brave, go-for-broke production whose minimal aspect delivers maximal results.
This article appeared in print with the headline "The soul of wit"