In his fast-and-furious Hamlet at GableStage, director-adaptor Tarell Alvin McCraney gets right down to business.
William Shakespeare’s great tragedy and longest play doesn’t begin with two Elsinore Castle sentinels spying the ghost of Hamlet’s murdered father. Instead, the play opens with a magnetic Edgar Miguel Sanchez launching into Hamlet’s famous Act 3 Scene 1 soliloquy, a contemplation of suicide: “To be, or not to be -- that is the question...”
This adaptation by Miamian McCraney and British theater artist Bijan Sheibani was originally crafted for the Royal Shakespeare Company. With its 90-minute running time and emphasis on action, it was designed to appeal to audiences of all ages while telling a well-known, exciting story in Shakespeare’s words.
Purists may miss the more leisurely and complete character development of the far longer original. The excision of certain characters and speeches, plus the editing and placement of other passages, might bug knowledgeable Hamlet aficionados. But taken on its own terms, the GableStage Hamlet achieves McCraney’s intentions.
The director-playwright offers up a physically charged production of a complex tragedy, the story of a jealous royal who murders his brother, hastily marries his newly widowed sister-in-law, ascends to the throne and tries to keep his furious nephew from uncovering the truth. Eight impressive actors (some with dual roles) and a trio of New World School of the Arts college students deliver McCraney’s energized production. Here, the essence of the play is the thing.
To that end, this Hamlet is simply presented on GableStage’s wide, narrow stage. Lyle Baskin’s uncluttered set consists of a ramp, arched entryways, red velvet curtains and little else. Jeff Quinn’s lighting and Matt Corey’s sound enrich that bare-bones world, and though Ellis Tillman’s costumes have a ‘30s look, this Hamlet is largely unmoored from time.
As a director, McCraney has drawn effective, sometimes dynamic performances from his eclectic cast, actors who range over that broad playing area and sometimes spill into the audience. That physical proximity ratchets up the play’s excitement and tension, particularly in the deadly sword fight between Sanchez’s Hamlet and Ryan George’s Laertes, a scene that ends in multiple deaths and blood-drenched daggers.
Sanchez -- omnipresent, crafty, sorrowful, furious -- drives the play. His early love for Ophelia, tenderly conveyed in his first scene with Mimi Davila, gives way to a vengeance that will, in the righting of wrongs, lead to one tragedy after another. Davila’s Ophelia morphs from a sweet, smitten schoolgirl into a way over-the-top, sexualized madwoman.
James Samuel Randolph, with his rich voice and facility with Shakespeare’s language, is an artful villain as Claudius and a frightening presence as the ghost of Hamlet’s father. As Gertrude, Alana Arenas subtly conveys the push-pull of her feelings for her new husband and her only son. Together, Arenas and Randolph make for a regal, commanding couple.
Peter Haig deftly plays Polonius as a quirky, energetic schemer whose plotting leads to his undoing. Dylan Kammerer supplies solid backup to Hamlet as the prince’s best bud Horatio. George flips from the generally angry Laertes to a goofy Rosencrantz, and as Guildenstern (and a singing, ukulele-playing Osric), Arielle Hoffman makes a beguiling Shakespearean debut. New World students Laura Di Lorenzo, Michael Napoles and Alfie Ramirez acquit themselves well as the court’s visiting acting troupe, and they add a bit of sabor español to the production.
After its GableStage run, Hamlet will get two weeks of morning performances for high school students in two different large theaters. Though some of Shakespeare’s language may be rough going for them, McCraney’s “action movie” approach should help demonstrate why Shakespeare -- and Hamlet -- have endured for lo these many centuries.