To cheer, or not to cheer? – The question did not even enter my mind at the conclusion of last night’s sold out performance of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet at Georgetown University’s Gonda Theatre.The cheers and the standing ovation were spontaneous, such was the force and brilliance of innovative, multimedia production of the most famous and most performed play of all time. I am still under the spell of last night’s hypnotic travels into the souls of archetypal characters and their world of madness, love, and death; and of the power of a primeval story, which whilst retold by Shakespeare centuries ago, continues to touch human hearts to this day.
Hamlet opens the Georgetown University Theatre and Performance Studies 2013-14 Season, titled ‘Remember Me. A Season of Ghosts and Spirits’, and is one of the plays which, “explore how the past haunts the present – sometimes insisting that we overcome distraction and not forget, as with the ghost of Hamlet’s father,” explains Professor Derek Goldman, Director of Hamlet.
This production of Hamlet was rehearsed simultaneously with an interdisciplinary seminar of the play, which allowed the students to explore their own relationship with Hamlet in the context of their own lives and emotions; and to examine a range of issues, such as power, social media, friendship, romance, death, and depression to name a few. As a result, what we see on stage is a “contemporary setting surrounded by technology, a 21st Century world the students identify with and can call their own. All, but Hamlet, are almost inseparable from their iPads and iPhones throughout the play. Regular electronic music intervals give them a chance to break into dance, emphasizing their distance and alienation from Hamlet, reminding the audience of the play’s modern context.
The above world would not have come to life if it was not for extraordinary talents of the production team. The power of the scenic design by Swedian Lie hits us immediately; however its true brilliance unfolds throughout the play. The stage is dominated by a huge, wooden table with an opening inside, and nine big brown conference leather chairs spread around it. Four wide columns with in-built plasma screens and earphones attached, two on each side, frame the setting. The versatility of stage design, achieved through combination of the richness and timelessness of wood and leather with elements of technology and stainless steel, triggers multiple associations. We could easily imagine being in a space ship’s control room, as well as in the Camelot Castle with King Arthur and his knights about to appear. What follows during the performance exceeded my expectations and took my breath away. The table becomes a stage, its crevice – a tunnel to the underworld and a grave; the screens turn into sources of crucial information, images and signals; chairs are used to wheel away the dead.
The performance starts. Messages displayed on the screens tell us that we are in a tutorial room of Georgetown University, attending a seminar on Hamlet. The spotlight is on Addison William (Hamlet), who sits in one of the chairs with a book in his hand, lost in thought. Suddenly the peace is broken by modern tunes and somewhat rowdy arrival of eight other students: Olivia Duff (Ophelia), Greg Keiser (Polonius), Benjamin Prout (Laertes), Walter Kelly (Horatio), Alexandra Waldon (Gertrude), Ed Walczak (Claudius), Jack Schmitt (Rosencrantz), and Joe Napier (Guildenstern). From that moment the tutorial room turns into a theatre stage and the story of Hamlet begins.
The characters retain their contemporary attires, strategically chosen by the costume design team lead by Professor Debra Kim Sivigny and her Associate Costume Designer Kyle O’Donnell, and their wardrobe crew. The designers emphasize traits and the status of the characters with clever and often subtle variations. Hamlet predictably wears somber colors; Claudius’ royal status is signified by a dark, alas casual suit; Gertrude’ sexuality is emphasized by black fishnets and boots, red lipstick, short dress and jewelry; Horatio’s elegance rests on braces over a white shirt adorned with scarf. Polonius – the most comical character in the play – gets to wear colorful pants and shoes, striped socks and a cap. The memorable burst of color and fun appears with the entry of the Player Queen, played by Marlene Cox, and her troupe, all dressed and accessorized with panache and humor. In contrast the apparition of King Hamlet (with the voice of Rick Foucheux) in long discolored hooded cape comes across as spine-chilling and scary. So do other ghosts, whose heads and shoulders are covered with bloodied cloths to signify their gory passing.
Hamlet is Shakespeare’s longest play, and thus presents its directors with multitude of dares and opportunities. Professor Goldman, his Assistant Director Hannah Hauer-King, and their crew turned the challenges into an astounding success. The list of memorable scenes is too long to mention here. Great acting, direction and design continuously transformed by masterful lighting, sound, visual, and other special effects, create images so powerful that I forgot about the time and space and gave into an illusion of moving from location to location, while looking at the same set. This would not have been possible without the amazing efforts of Lighting Designer Harold F. Burgess II, Sound Designer James Bigbee Garver, and Projection Designer Jared Mezzocchi. Fight Choreographer Joe Isenberg and fighters Addison Williams (Hamlet) and Benjamin Prout (Laertes) deliver a fencing duel scene which was unbelievable I am sure I was not the only spectator who feared for the actors.
Lastly, congratulations to the talented young cast. Addison Williams brought Hamlet back to life in such a convincing and powerful way. Olivia Duff made her ‘mad scene’ believable and moving, and sang wonderfully, and Ed Walczak delivered the ‘prayer scene’ beautifully. Benjamin Prout played Laertes with lots of energy and great stage presence, and his outstanding fencing duel will be hard to forget. Alexandra Waldon’s Gertrude was beautiful and sensitive, yet icy at times. Greg Keiser (Polonius) and Nehemiah Markos (The Gravedigger) delivered many laughs. Walter Kelly (Horatio), Joe Napier (Guildenstern) Jack Schmitt (Rosencrantz), Joshua Schuman (Prologue/Priest) and Katie Jane Morgan (Lucianus) made their characters genuine and memorable.
To be or not to be? That is still a relevant question Hamlets of today keep asking. There are sadly too many young young people around us dealing with pain, abandonment and alienation and too many Ophelias feeling hurt and disappointed in love, rejected and alone. Director and Professor Goldman hopes that the production will resonate with today’s audiences and students, and his hopes have been fully realized. I was not only thoroughly entertained with this visual and aural spectacle, but also encouraged to reflect on “the ghosts of my own private world.” Hamlet is a production not to be missed!
Running time: 2 hours 40 minutes, with one intermission.
Hamlet plays through November 16, 2013 at Georgetown University’s Gonda Theatre – 37th and O Streets, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, purchase them at the door or online.