Taffety Punk has given us a passionate Hamlet, whose loneliness, wit, and audacity make him utterly unsuited to the corrupt and deceptive society in which he lives. Go if you like Shakespeare. Go if you don’t like Shakespeare. Go if you have always heard about Shakespeare, and wonder what all the fuss is about.
Marcus Kyd’s Hamlet, bruised by loss, fighting for his sanity, a rejected lover of life in all its complexity, must be seen by anyone who values innovative acting. He is surrounded by a gifted and exceptionally versatile cast, and a production which dispels the shadows surrounding the “bad” first Quarto. The First Quarto is shorter than the First Folio, and less poetic. But its rawness and immediacy turn it into a kind of Elizabethan Look Back in Anger, full of rage, originality, and fire. What could be more relevant than the struggle to make moral choices in a world offering only violence?
Director Joel David Santner creates one provocative visual image after another. The actors march in like an army. Ofelia and Hamlet dance together. Actors write words on a giant chalk board wall and then, ominously, rub them out. There is a great deal of dance, all striking and well performed; choreographed by Paulina Guerrero. Original music, by Beauty Pill is sometimes eerie, sometimes playful, but always compelling.
Daniel Flint plays Claudius the King as well as his murder victim, the Ghost of Hamlet’s father. His Claudius is deeply in love with Gertred, remorseful but determined to protect what he has. As the Ghost he is truly terrifying; the actors use flashlights in the first Ghost scenes, adding to the mystery and sense of danger. Dan Crane’s Leartes is initially genial, but he skillfully delineates Leartes’ journey from pleasure to heartbreak to anger to forgiveness.
Esther Williamson has the unique task of enacting both Hamlet’s best friend, Horatio, and his lost love, Ofelia. She finds just the right tone for each transition; as both characters she is believable and moving. Her mad scenes as Ofelia are extraordinary.
Jim Jorgenson’s Corambis (Polonius in the Folio) is carefully drawn and beautifully modulated to extract every possible shade of meaning. His Gravedigger is frighteningly offhand, and he and Teresa Castracane as the 2d Gravedigger make an entertaining team, sharing a drink as they finish their labors. Kyd and Jorgensen are especially fine in the “Yorick” scene. Jessica Lefkow’s superb “Gertred” takes full advantage of the differences in the Quarto; for instance, she works for Hamlet against the King. She is a sympathetic figure, in love with Claudius but deeply concerned about her son.
The Ensemble plays with great conviction, commitment, and attention to detail. Teresa Castracane delivers the 2nd Player with style and energy, but she is equally adept as Marcellus, Rossencraft, the 2d Gravedigger, a Priest, and Fortenbrasse! Besides Leartes, Dan Crane, depicts Guilderstone, Barnardo, and the 1st Player. The sight of him declaiming atop a chest as the 1st Player perfectly captures the wonder and joy of the player’s art. Jorgensen as the Braggart Gentleman; Lefkow as Montano and the 1st Sentinel; Williamson as Voltemar; all attack their roles with delight and ferocity.
The scene design by Daniel Flint is effective and exceptionally versatile, important in such a small space. Chris Curtis’ Lighting design has many unusual and distinctive touches. Dan Crane as Fights and Sword Master choreographs gripping and realistic swordplay, and each character’s death requires minimal suspension of disbelief. Sound Design by Mehdi Raoufi fits in extremely well with the music, and sets the tone of each scene very successfully. Costumes by Tessa Lew have a nice blend of otherworldly and stylish aspects. Costume changes are especially cleverly done, as each actor deftly switches character.
For those who are interested in the differences between the various Hamlet(s), the Wooster Group has an excellent side-by-side version of Q1, Q2 and Folio on their website. But it is a treat to hear many of Shakespeare’s most memorable lines here, and the depth of Hamlet’s character is very much in play. Those who know the play might miss certain famous lines–“Goodnight sweet prince. And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest,” or “words without thoughts never to heaven go” but most of the immortal soliloquies remain. There are a number of controversies that exist: what was Hamlet’s true age? When is Hamlet mad, and when is he sane? Is he ever truly mad? Marcus Kyd makes exciting choices, answering each question with a performance which unites the many contradictions in Hamlet’s personality.
If you go to the Internet, and who doesn’t, you can find a number of sensational Hamlet memes. “I wrote Hamlet before Emo was cool.” “Keep calm and get thee to a nunnery.” A cartoon in which a disgusted Gertrude says to Hamlet, “Oh, Hamlet, I am so tired of you and your morbid t-shirts.”
Amid the myth, the ubiquity, the sheer empyrean grandeur of it all, it is easy to miss what a wonderfully exciting play Hamlet really is. Hamlet, The First Quarto is more compact, less detailed, and edgier, which makes it the perfect vehicle for the Taffety Punk Theatre Company. It is a surprising, turbulent ride, giving you an entirely new perspective on the play and its meaning.
Running Time: Two and one-half hours, with one ten-minute intermission.
Hamlet, The First Quarto plays through May 23, 2015 at Taffety Punk Theatre Company, performing at the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop – 545 7th Street, SE, in Washington, DC. Tickets may be purchased at the door or online.