A new adaptation by de Rogatis and director Jay Michaels, it’s said to draw upon tales and legends that provided source material for Shakespeare’s play, promising “a version of Hamlet but also the story of Hroðulf from the late 5th century and the 6th century; Amlóði from the 12th century; [and] Ur-Hamlet and Heronimo from the early Renaissance,” with excerpts from these older texts.
Instead, what’s on stage at the 13th Street Repertory Theatre is, essentially, Shakespeare’s Hamlet, modestly abridged and with some scenes re-ordered. Rather than the academically interesting evening I anticipated, it’s pretty much simply Shakespeare – method-acted, fever-pitched, often thrilling, sometimes frustrating. If it interpolates older texts, the staging doesn’t point them out.
The noticeable addition is a narrator, who rises between certain scenes, most often to unnecessarily recap what we’ve just seen or explain what we already know is coming. Once or twice he offers useful commentary – explaining, for example, why Claudius and not Hamlet Jr. inherited the Danish crown in the first place. But mostly the narration made me feel talked down to, untrusted to know or follow the story without dumbed-down CliffsNotes.
As a Hamlet, though, the production shines on several counts. Taking a cue from de Rogatis’s acidly emotional prince, the show sustains a rococo emotionality which Shakespeare’s expansive and almost infinitely forgiving language can handily encompass.
Turning Rosencrantz and Guildenstern into vampy female friends of the prince is the most obvious gamble, but it’s of a piece with the production’s saturated dramatic colors, and it pays off in suggestiveness and humor. On the other hand, an outlandishly emotional Yorick scene doesn’t seem earned, presented as if we, like Hamlet, should be able to feel the loss of Yorick, a character we’ve never met.
At times de Rogatis’s approach leads to gushes of breakneck speed, blurring Shakespeare’s magnificent language; we lose half of what Hamlet says to Gertrude in the famous scene in her bedroom, even as his wild-eyed emotional seesaw keeps us rapt.
But mostly the knife-edge intensity makes his Hamlet believably overwrought, including in the sometimes unconventionally paced but memorably delivered monologues. Likewise, Lorraine Mattox’s effulgent Ophelia charges her scenes with radioactive energy, a counterbalance, lacking in some productions, to the hapless prince’s dramatic dominance.
Linda S. Nelson’s loving, blindsided Gertrude made we wish Shakespeare had given Hamlet’s ill-starred mother a bit more to do. Greg Pragel’s loyal Horatio becomes the story’s steadying presence, not only Hamlet’s dependable friend but a raft for the audience to cling to amid the churning emotion. Only David Arthur Bachrach’s cartoonish Claudius colors outside the lines, posturing and overacting where Hamlet and Ophelia inhabit their skins with controlled fire.