Review: ‘Hamlet’ at Whiskey-Shine & Pantomime in Shepherdstown, WV

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The recently opened Whiskey-Shine & Pantomime theater organization in Shepherdstown makes a stunning debut with an updated, modern day, and outdoor adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Directed by Kyra Soleil, the production displays many bold choices and exceptional performances in a highly unique atmosphere.

A summary for those not familiar with the famous play; Hamlet is a young and moody prince of Denmark. He is haunted by his father’s ghost, who tells him that his brother, Hamlet’s uncle Claudius, murdered his own brother and then married his wife, Hamlet’s mother, Gertrude. Hamlet vows to seek revenge on his uncle and Hamlet is still troubled by the idea Ophelia may be falling in love with him and that he may be going insane. Spoiler alert again for those not familiar; as it is a Shakespearean tragedy, almost everyone dies at some point.

Ben Johnson. Photo courtesy of Whiskey-Shine & Pantomime.
Ben Johnson. Photo courtesy of Whiskey-Shine & Pantomime.

In the title role, Ben Johnson gives a phenomenal performance. His soliloquies throughout the show were very naturally delivered, and Johnson’s descent into madness was gradual and very well played. He was a natural fit to the updated production and excelled as a darkly emo character in a show full of hipsters. For instance, the famous “To be or not to be” soliloquy took place with Johnson in a tree, lit only by the dim glare of his cell phone, as though he was dictating a lengthy text message.

Hannah Smyle made some distinct and refreshing choices as Ophelia. Far from being a typical ingenue, Smyle transformed the character into an obnoxious hipster. Her sassy and snarky looks following the character’s mainly demure and obedient lines made the performance, and her mad scene, far from being over the top or over dramatic, was very understated and subtle, which made it all the more chilling.

Koty Crawford is a forceful King Claudius, and allows the sleazy, smarmy personality traits to shine through. His guilty confession breakdown in Act III was extremely disturbing and well executed. As Queen Gertrude, Kirstie Wooten is both regally haughty and wonderfully quirky. Her scene with Johnson in Act III highlighted both of the actors’ dramatic abilities.

Jimmy Bombera is a solid sidekick as Hamlet’s trusted friend, Horatio. His chemistry with Johnson was impressive and Bombera had a very understated charisma and charm. Jon Ford made an impressive transition as Ophelia’s brother, Laertes. Ford started as an understated, lackluster supporting character who flipped into a powerfully angry and fiercely devoted family member later in the show.

A cleverly unique approach to both double casting and dual characters was the decision to have Joshua Riese play both Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as the character Rosencrantz P. Guildenstern, which Riese handled with great aplomb. Developing distinctly different postures and character voices for both of the characters, and sometimes switching back and forth in only seconds, Riese played up the comedy of the doubling exceedingly well, as did the rest of the actors he shared scenes with when they addressed “both” characters. Riese also had a standout moment in Act V with his character decision to make the Gravedigger a hillbilly redneck to add some comedic relief.

However, the only reason Riese was probably able to steal the scene in Act V is because the consistent scene stealer of the show, Tai Sommers as Polonius, was already dead. Sommers gives possibly the most over-the-top and side splitting hilarious performance in the show. His purposefully over-enunciated lines and outrageous physical stances were hysterical to watch and Sommers delighted in constantly attempting to one-up his scene partners. His scene while reading Ophelia’s letter in Act III nearly stopped the show.

Fionan Franklin as Osric/Francisco and Kyra Soleil as Bernardo/Player add to the intensity of the show, especially in the chilling and spooky staged opening scene.

One of the most authentic performance aspects is that the entire show is performed outside. The Timber Frame Folly is an outdoor wooden performance area, and the phrase “All the world’s a stage” (from a different show by the Bard) is taken quite literally, as cast members are in and out of the audience area, on and off the stage and yes, at times climbing nearby trees and delivering soliloquies while sitting on a tree branch. The low lighting, intimate performance space and occasional breeze ruffling the tree branches enhanced the overall experience to add some spooky elements, and really set a time traveling tone to watching Shakespeare’s shows as some were originally performed, in remote wooded areas by traveling bands of actors

However, there are some notes of caution since the production takes place entirely outdoors. The show features actors smoking actual cigarettes while outdoors and audience members are also allowed to eat, drink, be merry and smoke during the show. The venue does feature stone benches for seating, but audience members are encouraged to bring folding chairs or picnic blankets if they would like a more comfortable seat. And finally, the production does take place in the woods, where there are no nearby accessible restrooms, so if audience members experience nature’s call, they quite literally have to go “into the woods.”

Joshua Riese, Jimmy Bombera, Kirstie Wooten and Koty Crawford. Photo courtesy of Whiskey-Shine & Pantomime.
Joshua Riese, Jimmy Bombera, Kirstie Wooten and Koty Crawford. Photo courtesy of Whiskey-Shine & Pantomime.

The fight choreography in the show was beautifully executed, looking very gritty and realistic while maintaining actors’ safety. The lighting effects, designed by DJ Alenksis, Matt Pisani and Michael Moran, were spectacular for the production, especially in spite of the fact they had a limited technical option and light board to work with while outdoors. The moving lighting effects to display Hamlet’s father as a ghost and moving projections used during Ophelia’s death scene greatly helped increase the dramatic tension.

The set, also designed and constructed by DJ Alenksis, Matt Pisani, and Michael Moran, is a Gothic styled living room on the intimate, outdoor wooden stage beneath branches intertwining to form an archway. Costumes, provided by the cast, are modern day hipster and everyday styles, such as jeans and boots, for each character.

For a haunting and intimate updated adaption of one of Shakespeare’s most famous works, don’t miss the Whiskey-Shine & Pantomime production of Hamlet.

Running Time: Two hours and 30 minutes, with a 15-minute intermission.

Hamlet plays through October 23, 2016 at Whiskey-Shine & Pantomime performing at The Timber Frame Folly -301 Big Oak Drive, in Shepherdstown, WV. Tickets can be purchased at the door.

RATING: FIVE-STARS-82x1555.gif