The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark Review
To say that Hamlet is the most prominent tragedy of the past five hundred years is to do it little justice – throw a stone into any given theater and, more likely than not, you’ll hit a weeping prince of Denmark square in the head.
Over the centuries, Hamlet has cemented itself in history not simply as the most lauded play in William Shakespeare’s repertoire, but as the predominant drama of the English language. As a result, the directors, dramaturges, and actors tasked with staging the work are presented with an onerous challenge. How can they bring such a seminal text to life in a manner that honors the mastery of the Bard while still reflecting culturally resonant truths?
This question has been met with a multitude of answers in the modern age. The plays of Shakespeare, especially Hamlet, are frequently treated to changes in setting, style, and even script. These ambitious efforts can often make or break a modern Shakespearean production, and the line between a successful staging and a failing one is thin.
The Hofstra University Department of Drama and Dance’s production of Hamlet, however, subverts the modern Shakespearean problem. The show, advertised under the play’s full original title, The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, decides to present the play not in the context of modernity, but rather in the style of its original performance.
This does not mean that the production, which launches Hofstra’s 68th Annual Shakespeare Festival, is simply an unenterprising, classic take on Shakespeare’s script. Rather, the performance mimics that of an old English performing troupe, the sort of environment in which the play may have been first rehearsed and performed. Hofstra’s Hamlet does not begin with the lowering of the house lights -- in fact, they are left on for the whole performance. Instead, the cast, who mingle with the audience casually before the show begins, break into song one by one as they take place onstage. They sing an old English folk tune, “Barley Mow,” bringing the audience first to a nervous hush and then into a merry foot-tapping as the whole cast joins in the song. When the cast begins singing, Hamlet has not yet begun, but the players’ performance has.
The mood set by these first few moments, in which the audience is presented not simply with actors, but with a real, genuine acting company, dictates the lens through which the rest of the play is presented. The crowd knows from the get-go, as the players make joking announcements in character, that this performance will not simply be Drury Lane Shakespeare, but Shakespeare in its truest, original form; it will be brash and bawdy, as well as tragic and tumultuous.
In Hofstra’s Hamlet, there seems to be a deliberate effort to draw out the dramatic and comedic potential in every character. For instance, in a standard production, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern may be treated purely as comic relief, the two bumbling sycophants with little awareness of anything at all. However, in this production, the duo are both dressed up like dandies and are played as two tepid, two-faced collaborators as well as amusing buffoons by Andrew F. Salzano and Richie Dupkin. This duality of character is reflected throughout the play, and is a reminder that the goal of the “troupe” is to elicit both tears and laughter.
While characters like Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, and the laughably verbose Polonius (Justin Valentino) are treated with dramatic respect, they are still unmistakably the comedic heart of the production. What, then, about the tragic roles? Claudius, Gertrude, Ophelia, and Laertes, the most ill-fated characters (besides Hamlet himself), are played with an appropriate seriousness. Justin Chevalier as Claudius is commanding but jovial, the picture of an ideal monarch, a choice which makes the seething of his nephew all the more convincing. Kristen Washington’s Gertrude is regal, almost to the point of aloofness, until her confrontation with Hamlet in Act Three, during which she falls into a vibrant, accessible piteousness. Ophelia, portrayed by Samantha Haviland, is unassuming and almost demure early on in the play – she shows little reluctance in participating in the Claudius and Polonius’s efforts to decode Hamlet’s madness – but in the last acts of the play, she breaks down into an intermittently violent and hushed madness, displaying a truly haunting erraticism. Maya Jennings’ Laertes is brash and biting, a performance filled with a raw, emotional machismo that acts an excellent foil to Haviland’s Ophelia.
These tragic roles are played more traditionally than Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, and Polonius are, but they still add to the dramatic-comedic interplay that defines the production. The beautifully performed tragic roles serve not only the story, but also help to highlight the unique angles taken by the comedic actors, ultimately contributing to the overall feeling of Hofstra’s Hamlet as a performance drawn straight from acting companies of the Elizabethan age.
The performance that most emphasizes the style of Hofstra’s Hamlet, however, is undoubtedly that of William Ketter in the titular role. Ketter’s Hamlet is not the classic woeful youth, nor is he anything else so distinct and easy to define. Instead, this Hamlet is representative of all that the Hofstra performance has to offer: in comedic moments, he revels in the comedy, taking gleeful joy in mocking Polonius, Rosencrantz, and Guildenstern; in moments of anger he is the embodiment of fury, berating and attacking Ophelia and Gertrude with a manic rage. The most earnest and uncompromising moments of Ketter’s performance are, perhaps, in his soliloquys and long speeches, particularly the ode to Yorick’s skull. This particular scene is the defining one of the production. Ketter’s Hamlet, seconds after jesting with the Gravedigger, turns slowly towards introspection, musing on the life of the dead jester. This moment, rooted in Shakespeare’s signature whimsical comedy as much as it is in his ruminative tragedy, is an embodiment of the troupe’s goal: to amuse the onlookers, to make them weep, and to make them reflect on matters beyond the stage itself.
Ketter’s performance is necessarily accompanied by the compellingly earnest portrayal of Horatio by Samantha Kamelhar, who not only frames Hamlet’s hijinks, but the whole play. It is Kamelhar’s Horatio that reacts to the simultaneously absurd and tragic end of the play, adroitly synthesizing the production’s dual nature in the final scene. Horatio’s view throughout the play is akin that of the audience, as they both stand by Hamlet, watching him fight and laugh and act and perish. We see the merriment, despair, and tragedy of the human experience as we see Ketter’s Hamlet live and die on stage through the eyes of Kamelhar’s Horatio.
The direction of Christopher Dippel and work of dramaturg Maureen Conolly McFeely place the performances, both traditional and non-traditional, in a distinctly Shakespearean frame. Hofstra’s Hamlet is acted on Hofstra’s newly built Globe Theater replica, accompanied by era-appropriate music by Arthur Solari, and done in the style of an old English troupe by a group of committed young actors. The production is an ode to Shakespeare, to the acting tradition, and to the theater’s ability to bring people to laughter and to tears.
Hamlet himself perhaps says it best when he describes the role of the theater: “…to hold, as ‘twere, the mirror up to nature, to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure.” Hofstra’s Hamlet plays this role with grace and aplomb, and gives the rich tradition of the theater a worthy tribute.
The remaining performances of Hofstra’s The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark are playing on the Hofstra Globe Stage at the John Cranford Adams Playhouse on South Campus on the following dates: Friday, March 10 at 8pm, Saturday, March 11 at 8pm, and Sunday, March 12 at 2pm.