Timeless Tale

LTW shows 'Hamlet' some love with this intense, stripped-down portrayal

In its mainstage series, Live Theatre Workshop is presenting the comedy I Hate Hamlet. And when you initially learn what the company is doing with the real Hamlet in its late-night Etcetera series, you might worry that the hatred has been held over for the 10:30 show. More than half of Shakespeare's text has been wrenched away; many of the male characters have been turned into women; and there's a definite gay thing going on with Hamlet's buddy Horatio.

Yet what's obvious once you're spun out of the theater after this intense, two-hour distillation of Hamlet is that just about everyone involved loves this play. The young actors are fully committed to every single line; the emotions are true; and director Adam-Adolfo's adaptation strips the script down to its essentials. This comes at the expense of some character development, but it does wonders for the trajectory of the plot. The paring is so smooth that nonspecialists in the audience aren't likely to miss any of the cut passages, except for the business with poor Yorick's skull.

This Hamlet is done in modern dress, some of it quasi-goth but not goth enough to make it seem dated already. A bit of Adam-Adolfo's program note is worth quoting:

"In a story that has been reinterpreted, skewed and indeed re-envisioned countless times, it became important for me to present Elizabethan theatre in a form that translates to modern-day audiences. Elizabethan theatre was so flagrant in its sexuality, graphic in its violence and heightened in its emotional content that it bred a unique theatrical vocabulary--integrating fantastic fights, dancing, music and special effects into its storytelling spectacle. That being said, I feel modern productions of Hamlet focus too closely on the madness and revenge aspects of the text, and that our particular challenge was to put the Tragedy back in Hamlet; after all, it's not called the Revenge of Hamlet or the Madness of Hamlet. Who, then, would Hamlet be if he lived in our modern times? Is Hamlet a student who commits murders in cold blood, or is he merely a victim of a society that cannot hear him--what makes Hamlet any different (from) other students who commit heinous acts like school shootings?"

The director isn't really successful in exploring that last issue, which is just as well. This is no sensationalist Columbine Hamlet; it's a version true to Shakespeare's original concept, in which a young prince comes home from college upon news that his father has died under unusual circumstances and that his mother has immediately married her brother-in-law. Hamlet, under instructions from the ghost of his murdered father, feigns madness to buy some time while he looks for an opportunity to take revenge--an opportunity he is unable to seize. Along the way, he accidentally kills the parent of his girlfriend, which drives said girlfriend to madness and accidental drowning. In the end, despite Hamlet's dithering, the stage is littered with bodies.

Such is Shakespeare's Hamlet, and such is Adam-Adolfo's. The adapter-director doesn't really have to do anything to make Hamlet a contemporary character, because he's already a contemporary, or rather timeless, character.

So if that last bit of Adam-Adolfo's manifesto is beside the point, even in his own production, the earlier points about sex and violence and theatricality manifest themselves splendidly on Live Theatre Workshop's little stage. The playlet that Hamlet stages to re-enact his father's murder is presented very effectively as a dance sequence; almost every scene is a canny combination of sexual arousal and sexual menace; the casting is unapologetically babe-a-licious.

In Shakespeare's time, female characters were generally played by young men; in this production, many of the male characters have had their gender reversed, and aside from a few pronoun problems, the result seems perfectly natural.

The old windbag Polonius ("Neither a borrower nor a lender be ...") is played by Missy Paschke as a flighty but overbearing mother to Ophelia (Hamlet's love interest) and Laertes (his eventual killer). Laertes, too, has become a woman, played with presence and fortitude but not butchness by Chelsea Bowdren. (The gender change brings an interesting shade to Polonius' advice to Laertes to "give every man your ear, but few your voice.") The devious agents Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, too, have gone distaff, and they're played with predatory sexuality by Katie Blodgett and Christina Fruciano.

There's something to admire about everyone in this cast: Roxanne Harley's haughty but worried Gertrude (Hamlet's mom), Brian Hendricks' suitably louche Claudius (Gertrude's new husband), Richelle Meiss' girlish but never unsophisticated Ophelia, H. Michael Croner's lovesick Horatio and various supporting parts played by Justin Cole and Brian McGrath.

Then there's Matthew Bowdren as Hamlet. It can be difficult to make this character mopey without wallowing in self-pity, but Bowdren manages it. He can't fully explore the ambiguity of Hamlet's feigned madness--the cuts in the text make this impossible--and his quiet moments can be a bit too plain, but he's fully effective in the abundant passages of heightened intensity.

So here's a Hamlet that's not so revisionist that it will put off true believers, but hip enough to engage people with no particular patience for Shakespeare. And that's without even considering the new implications of the line "What ho!" when addressed to women in fishnet and leather.