I Am Hamlet is part rock opera, part puppet theatre, and part cinema, yet it's still a staged working of Shakespeare's Hamlet, as told by a jester. In this production, the Danish prince, suspecting his mother and stepfather of murder, struts to a nearby standing microphone and belts out a rock music song just about the time he'd be delivering an anguished soliloquy in a more traditional production.
His unfortunate fiance, Ophelia, clutches flowers and skips merrily across the stage, (picture Porky Pig's girlfriend Petunia at her most coy), and belts out her own righteous babe song as if in answer to Meatloaf's "Paradise By The Dashboard Lights," while gleefully shaking her tush in the direction of her forlorn lover.
Meanwhile, Hamlet's father's ghost appears, cued by spooky sound effects, dressed as if he assaulted the wardrobe rack at a Japanese Noh theatre production, and lip-speaks to a heavily produced taped recording. This bit goes on for some time. Derroch and Dan Death, the gravediggers, are tacky Halloween hand puppets animated by the only actor on stage. This is Hamlet performed by a single actor.
It may be true that the word, "ham," an actor who steals the spotlight, is derived from the play's title. In I Am Hamlet we watch an actor's subconscious anxiety while playing the role manipulate every aspect of the play, reducing all around him to insignificance.
Ophelia's father, Polonius, wearing a rubbery grotesque mask, has never before seemed such a genuinely funny character. The once martyred and righteous player is now a buffoon, and his death scene is a hilarious comedy only altered from the traditional play by a funny face.
Ophelia is no longer the delicate flower overpowered with depression, but a dumb blond who jumps into the river to allow Hamlet more freedom on the stage. The ghost, maybe Shakespeare's most towering character, looks as though he could be hosting a third rate children's television show on local TV. Only the Ham himself manages to gnaw the woodwork of earnest and limited acting. He's succeeded in eliminating everyone else from the stage.
The production is not simply played for laughs, although it certainly isn't serious Shakespeare either. Actor/performer Brain Morey and director Joe Siracusa have given us Hamlet splattered with a vaudevillian pop art. It may touch upon the profound but cerebral merit is soon swept away by the fine but sparse Broadway-like original music, (picture a small scale Shakespearean Rent), sung most exceptionally by Morey, and the sheer audacity of this foolish man delivering Hamlet as though his life depended on it.
If it does have meaning it may lie in the dead skull of the jester Yorick, ("Alas, poor Yorick"), who in this production should be grinning like a crazed jack-o-lantern. Morey glides through each scene with a magician's sleight of hand, creating a natural rhythm that eludes the absence of actors on the stage.
His King Claudius is a little heavy on the Peter O'Toole, and the production's "play within a play," jarringly projected on a movie screen and a bit long in the tooth, is such an abrupt change of circus rings you half expect a hot dog vendor to come hawking through the aisle. Still, this first-rate joke is a whole lot better than second rate Shakespeare.
I Am Hamlet plays at the Subversive Theatre Collective at The Manny Fried Playhouse, Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays, May 20 through June 5 in Buffalo, New York.