Hamlet – Like Teen Spirit
*This is The Bad Oracle’s “family matters” disclosure: someone involved in this production is related to or the partner of a member of the staff of The Bad Oracle. This is an exception to our usual disclaimer, which is why it is here.
Okay, so, March 4th, 2016 is the day that I officially care, once again, about Hamlet.
Let me be clear: I don’t usually care about Hamlet. I appreciate Hamlet. I like Hamlet. But in terms of actually caring about Hamlet, well, no. I have a degree in theater, I’ve seen, read, analyzed the show what feels like eight hundred million times. But it has hardly given me a reason to care. Until now.
Director Alice Stanley turns in an astonishing version of this old beast: familiar, alien, unnerving and absolutely fascinating. First and foremost, the title character (and many of the supporting ones) is gender flipped from a man to a woman, played by Caitlin Carbone. The switch audaciously removes the central motivation, of a man who must avenge the death of his father, completely, since that motivation is, in itself, a gender construct. In its absence rushes in a host of messy, human, discordant pushers that should make no sense but somehow do. And what emerges out of this roiling, intense pit comes a central theme, brutally played. Grief. Grief run unchecked, unanswered, uncared for. Grief run mad.
Stanley also sets the play in 1993 grunge addled Seattle and cranks down Hamlet’s age quite a bit, which also makes perfect sense (there are differing opinions to the question of how old Hamlet is, but the play indicates he’s about thirty). Carbone is, from the edge of her flannel shirt to the tips of her canvas shoes, a teenager. Because myself, and most of the audience, cast, and technical team were teens during this era, the choice provides a shorthand for adolescence, at least for us, that few other could match. As Nine Inch Nails and Nirvana blare from the speakers (sound by Alice Stanley), a teen’s angst and apathy at an adult world that wants to commodify, not comfort, her, seems startlingly poignant. This Denmark is exactly what happens when no one wants to fucking grow up.
The dynamics that Stanley plays with are truly odd for the play and tease out strangely exciting sub-texts that were (of course) never intended but feel true even for it. Take the relationship between Gertrude (Katharine Vary) and Hamlet. Because they are both women, the Oedipal nature of mother/son, grossly overplayed in many productions, is gone. They seems closer, the tension of their relationship one of two women taking divergent paths in the face of a a male power that, even as a ghost, ignores them, dismisses them, lies to them and makes their wordly status frustratingly fragile. There is much more complexity and room for sympathy with Gertrude here, who Vary plays to a satisfying hilt (more on this in a second). Or take Ophelia (Sarah Lamar). Now in a same-sex relationship, her decent into madness isn’t so easy to dismiss as a weak-minded woman going crazy over a man. Instead, we get the sense that her position is precarious from the beginning. She’s surrounded by people who humiliate her, abuse her, treat her like shit. She thinks she sees madness in Hamlet and it’s terrifying but must seem intriguing, too, a chance to, finally, let go. She’s suffering.
Carbone’s Hamlet is exceptional. This is a depressed teen fucking with her parents, with who she’s rightfully pissed at. And Carbone doesn’t wear the teenager like a coat over her grown-up shoulders, either. She lives it, embodies it, even (God) remembers it. Her Hamlet is more confused than moody, the famous monologues that can stretch out to interminable lengths are done with a quickness, a lightness that feels fresh. When she asks: “Am I a coward?” we understand that she really doesn’t know what she’s supposed to do. She’s hot-headed, yes, but she’s also still the child, wanting attention, wanting to be understood. As the play goes deeper and Hamlet’s anger solidifies into rage, as she understands the power of death and how hard she can push, Carbone becomes scarier. It’s an intense, absolutely electrifying performance.
And it isn’t the only one. Lamar, as Ophelia, is haunting. She has had enough. When she wanders across the stage, at one point literally holding a gun to her head, she is the human embodiment of a cry for help. She’s fragile, yes, but she’s also terribly frustrated (watch how she rebuffs Hamlet’s advances during the play-within-a-play). Wonderfully done. Melanie Glickman plays a Laertes that, for once, understands just how much of a foil that character actually is to Hamlet. Her blue eyes burn a laser across the stage, she is not confused about her duty (interesting, too, that she is much more masculine-identified than Carbone). Katharine Vary makes incredibly strong choices for Gertrude, thank God. She, too, especially at the beginning, simmers with rage, just under the surface. We don’t get the sense that she’s in this relationship for love, let me tell you. That “I will obey” sounds like anything but. This early strength makes her later breakdown that much more human – you can only be strong for so long. Her position is impossible, we see, and no one, least of all her daughter, will give her a fucking inch. Vary’s classical training is appreciated here and her performance beautifully real and thoughtful as fuck. Lyle Smythers is a deserved audience favorite: he hits exactly the right notes for Polonius, a doddering old fool that is always talking too goddamned much. Again, I smell classical training here, his voice is great and his timing just right. The only weak spot I could see in the cast was Martin Ealy’s Claudius. He is powerful at times, especially as the ghost of his brother, but his lines aren’t there, which makes his performance hard to read.
The show is, technically, fairly simple. Lana Riggins once again shows that she isn’t afraid of the dark and cuts some beautiful lights. The scene in the graveyard is especially ballsy and is done to creepy, wonderful effect. Kat McKerrow’s costuming is unmistakably, perfectly, painfully (those eyebrows! that powersuit! the plaaaaid!) 90s. I wasn’t the biggest fan of the puppets for Rozencrantz and Guildenstern, I thought it was maybe one more strand of spaghetti at the wall than the play really needed, but the puppets themselves were lovely and well handled by Casey Dutt and Jane Jongeward (Puppetry Consultant was Jeff Miller). Oh, and Brad Norris (Fight Choreographer) turns in some fucking rock-and-roll swordplay action that is probably dangerous but man, looks so good.
BOTTOM LINE: Cohesion serves an incredibly emotional Hamlet, one that made me care, that made me stand, that opens a can of worms. This is a Hamlet that finds its marks brutally, hotly, humanly. Caitlin Carbone is present, breathtaking, and director Alice Stanley makes bold choices that shed a new light on the dark prince. It’s not perfect, not exactly. But it’s brilliant. And that’s much better.
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