Although this show closed March 6 after an all-too-brief two week run, I feel compelled to preserve its memory in writing. Simply put, this show blew me away. I can say with absolute confidence that it was the best Shakespeare production I have ever seen. Director John Kurzynowski stripped the show of all scholarly pretension often associated with Hamlet, leaving us with a rendition that honored the most fundamental element of a play–the words. Gone were the academic, philosophical hypotheses that all too often cloud what the words actually mean. It was Hamlet in its purest form.
Now, any stiff “Shakespeare purist” who saw the show may want me thrown in the proverbial bin for making that claim. How could this experimental, East Village production be “Hamlet in its purest form?” Kurzynowski threw all theatrical and Shakespearean conventions out the window with this show. As the audience walked in, the actors were already on stage warming up, dressed in hipster street clothes and chatting vibrantly amongst themselves. They even greeted friends in the audience, committing theatrical taboo by breaking fourth wall. And if that didn’t ruffle some highbrow feathers, one look at the program would have probably caused a heart attack. “Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, to be played by….Stacy Jordan? And Ophelia a man?! What is this blasphemy?”
All I can say is that I don’t know why Hamlet isn’t played this way every time. Hamlet as a woman and Ophelia as a man makes so much more sense–the switch completely averts the problem of these characters’ musings becoming annoying, as I have often found myself thinking in other experiences of the play. Jordan’s Hamlet was brilliant, and she endowed him with a sense of strength and groundedness that I had never seen before. She delivered her soliloquies in such a way that expressed exactly what the words meant; there was no convoluted subtext, no “I’m saying this but I mean that.” This made the character so much more accessible, so much more real, and allowed the audience to connect with her instead of being dragged through the show by the reigns of some unpredictable gelding. Tommy Heleringer’s Ophelia was heartbreaking, and he played the character with a refreshing sincerity. He did not indulge in a typical fit of madness, as Ophelia is often portrayed, but again let the words speak for themselves, evoking a profound sadness from deep within himself that emanated throughout the audience. Ophelia’s death scene was beautifully done, as flower petals were scattered throughout the entire scene, and as he signified the drowning by dipping his face in a water basin downstage center. When he lifted is head up to the light, the effect was intensely moving, as droplets of sparkling water trickled down his face.
Another aspect of this production that I greatly appreciated was how it embraced Shakespeare’s bawdy humor. The hilarious Kyle Williams, who played “the Clown,” would echo words like “cock” through stifled snickers, acknowledging them as the innuendoes they are. The show also epitomized the meaning of an ensemble. The cast remained on stage the entire time, and when actors were not in a certain scene, they would watch from the sidelines with genuine interest and enthusiasm for their fellow actors’ performances. Claudius was portrayed by almost every cast member, denoted by a red beanie. While each actor gave the character his or her own distinct flair, there was a remarkable sense of continuity throughout each incarnation, which also speaks to the company’s sense of ensemble.
I cannot end this review without mentioning the stunning Tina Shepard. As Hamlet Sr.’s ghost, the nucleus of the play, her omnipresence guided the show through its paces. Shepard bestowed the character with amazing depth, portraying him with eternal wisdom and solemn dignity. She transformed the character from an obsessively vengeful spirit to a piteous soul who had been profoundly hurt by betrayal.
This show, despite all of its eccentricities and innovations, depicted the core essence of Hamlet. By rejecting theatrical conventions and abstract theories surrounding the play, Kurzynowski brought the focus to the core elements of the show, allowing the actors to express the essential meaning of the text. This show was the quintessence of progressive theatre–creative, experimental, fearless, risk-taking, and most importantly, truthful. I only wish that this show were still running and that it received more widespread recognition for its brilliance. Not only was it Hamlet in its purest form, but also theatre in its purest form.