Anemic Royalty: Come as You Are to Elsinore
I have a new favorite production of Hamlet and I saw it right here in Charm City. I’ve seen Hamlet done very well before, but I’ve never seen anything like this. Remember that DiCaprio version of Romeo and Juliet that had everyone flipping their lids? This Hamlet is like that, except I like it better. Sorry, Leo.
Cohesion Theatre Company’s production of Hamlet is set in Seattle in 1993, the year Nirvana went on MTV Unplugged and Kurt Cobain sang David Bowie’s The Man Who Sold the World. In this Hamlet, the angst-ridden Dane is a woman… and it’s no big deal! It’s not scandalous or shocking that she and Ophelia are a same-sex couple. Neither is it headline news that Horatio and Laertes are played by female actors, as are Rosencrantz and Guildenstern for that matter. People use puppets and guns. “Words, words, words” refers to a copy of Trainspotting. This Hamlet plays by its own rules and hot damn do I love it.
In their Director’s Note, Alice Stanley reflects on how most productions of this play tend to focus more on politics and intrigue than on the characters as people. This Hamlet is intended to remove the aloof, intellectual distance between the watchers and the watched, allowing the audience to connect on an emotional and intuitive level with the Dark Prince’s tale. They accomplish this not only through their work with a fantastic cast of actors, but also through their use of the physical performance space.
Stanley and Scenic Designer/Production Manager Casey Dutt bring the action and emotion right to the people by using a Traverse-style stage for this show. The “stage” is simply a rectangular space spanning the length of the theater, its lengthwise borders delineated by rows of audience members on either side, facing each other fashion show-style. This intimate configuration puts you up close and personal with what’s happening on stage. It does have the downside, however, that a stationary actor can sometimes block your sight lines to the action on stage. Also, unless you’re in front, it’s difficult to see action that takes place at floor-level. Sit in the front rows to make sure you don’t miss any of the drama that takes place low to the ground.
A prominent feature of Dutt’s set is a large vertical flat painted with the Seattle skyline. There’s a white screen in the center that’s used to depict distant things like Fortinbras in Norway and shadowy goings-on like Claudius being a really bad brother. With the help of Shadow Puppetry Designer/Creator Lauren Engler, the poisoning sequence is reenacted on this screen using Malaysian-style shadow puppets, one of the many bold creative decisions that make this Hamlet not your typical trip to Elsinore.
Cohesion is lucky to have one of Baltimore’s best fight choreographers right on staff. As usual, Brad Norris arranged onstage scuffles and (spoiler alert) fights-to-the-death that were exciting, believable and kept both the actors and the audience injury-free. Having Melanie Glickman, herself a talented Fight Choreographer, playing Laertes – one of the main combatants – only made it better.
Alice Stanley’s sound design struck me right in my faded flannel heart. The music choices for this production, particularly to the ear of a Gen-Xer like me, were spot on. The songs helped establish place and time and acted as a sort of punctuation in all the right places. Similarly, Costume Designer Kat McKerrow’s work really lets you know where and when this is all going down. All the costumes are terrific, but Hamlet’s duds are especially good. With torn jeans, a horizontal-striped shirt under a flannel and Converse kicks, Caitlin Carbone could be the body double of our own tragic prince at a Rolling Stone photo shoot. She even dyed her hair Cobain-blonde for this show.
Caitlin Carbone’s Hamlet is outstanding. She speaks Shakespearean English like it’s her native tongue and she is so physically expressive, you could probably understand 90% of her part even if she didn’t speak at all. Her chemistry with Sarah Lamar’s Ophelia is particularly enchanting. Early in the show, the couple’s affection is so joyful and sweet, it only makes it hit harder when, feigning madness, Hamlet must reject Ophelia. The anguish on Carbone’s face in the nunnery scene is heartbreaking. Likewise, Lamar’s transformation from cute and carefree to the broken, catatonic, Jameson-swigging mess we lose to the river… even remembering it makes me feel sad.
Thanks to Shakespeare’s delightful wit, Polonius is always a good role. In the hands of Lyle Blake Smythers, it was hilarious. A well-timed balance of earnest and absurd, Smythers had me laughing out loud at lines I’ve heard a bazillion times before. Smythers, like more than half the cast of this production, is a newcomer to Cohesion’s stage. I’ve seen some of these Cohesion-debuting actors, like Shannon Ziegler – who deftly plays Horatio, treading the boards elsewhere about town. Others, like Katharine Vary – playing Gertrude from a pleasantly novel angle, and Martin Ealy – as a very presidential Claudius and a rattlingly scary ghost, I was seeing for the first time.
More than anything, I think I appreciate how, by demonstrating the characters’ feelings and emotions, this production has led me to see the relationships between the characters differently. For example, I’ve always been clear on an intellectual level that Laertes and Ophelia are siblings. But it wasn’t until seeing this Hamlet that I felt that connection. It was the way Melanie Glickman and Sarah Lamar interacted that changed things for me. It’s in the little looks Laertes and Ophelia give each other when Polonius is being such a dad; in the excitement they share when Laertes is preparing to leave for France; in the brotherly advice Laertes bestows. Likewise, I never recognized that Hamlet and Horatio were probably besties. Hamlet trusts Horatio implicitly to carry her secret and to have her back. In a world where you don’t even know whether you can trust your mom, that kind of friendship would mean so much.
By choosing to portray these familiar characters as such relatable people, in a setting I so clearly and pleasantly remember, Cohesion Theatre Company’s Hamlet has given me a whole new appreciation for one of Shakespeare’s most widely known and performed plays. The characters no longer feel like literary archetypes – the tragic hero, the power-hungry villain, the foil; they seem like human beings.
If you love Hamlet… or even more so if you hate Hamlet, I encourage you to make a point to catch this production before it leaves on March 20th. This isn’t just a Prince of Denmark you’ve never seen before, it’s one you don’t want to miss.
Running Time: Approximately two and a half hours, including a 15-minute intermission.
Hamlet plays through March 20, 2016 at Cohesion Theatre, performing at the Church on the Square in Canton – 1025 South Potomac Street, in Baltimore, MD. Tickets can be purchased at the box office or online.
Note: From Cohesion’s FaceBook page: “This play contains violence, adult subject matter, partial nudity, drug use, dick jokes, gunshots, depression, insanity, grief, fistfights in graves, regicide and pretty much every famous quote you know that you didn’t even realize was from Hamlet.”
Consider yourself warned.