There are some who argue that the works of William Shakespeare should never be altered, but instead be treated as sacred texts, performed just as the Bard intended and left untouched for as long as they are remembered. The American University Rude Mechanicals’ production of Hamlet is not for those people.
From the first scene, in which the trench-coat clad ghost of King Hamlet makes his way down the aisle toward the guards of the castle, there is an interesting juxtaposition of the archaic and the contemporary. Shakespeare’s original words are almost entirely untouched in the script, but these lines are delivered emotionally and realistically, abandoning the rigid formality typically associated with classic works. Hearing the famed “To Be or Not to Be” soliloquy delivered on the verge of tears brings out emotion far beyond anything I felt reading this play in high school English class. And seeing Hamlet, Horatio, Rosencrantz, and Guildenstern laughing, embracing, and joking with one another makes the archaic dialogue feel accessible and far more real than reading the words alone. The production is dripping in the same emo attitude that Hamlet, the character, is famous for – complete with angsty alternative music playing through the blackouts and grave diggers in flannels and Vans merrily disrespecting the dead.
The Rude Mechanicals’ motto is “Crossing swords, lines, and genders since 2003.” This was immediately obvious in this production, a show that did not so much bend gender as throw it out the window entirely. The cast is almost entirely female; as in the days of Shakespeare’s all male casts, any actor can play a character of any gender. Despite this, or more likely because of it, the cast shines, with the gendered aspects of the show adding a new dynamic to many scenes, such as the moment where Laertes sits down to braid Ophelia’s hair with sisterly affection, or the slight sexual tension present between Hamlet and Horatio (both portrayed by females) throughout.
Hamlet himself is portrayed by the talented Edmée Marie Faal, who masterfully captures the internal conflict that defines the character. She brings his sorrow to life, yet still manages to keep Hamlet likeable, interesting, and – at times – even funny. Although she might not necessarily be who Shakespeare originally imagined as the angst-riddled Prince of Denmark, Faal delivers a performance that both she and the Bard can be proud of.
Antagonizing the young Hamlet is Josh Bush as Claudius; a villain and a murderer with a stage presence like no other. He brings an impressive range of emotion to a role often remembered as a one-dimensional villain, breaking down under his own guilt and revealing an anger that made even me, sitting in the audience, a bit afraid. Bush is a veteran of the Rude Mechanicals, and his experience on top of his raw talent is visible as he rules, schemes, and eventually dies in the first Shakespearean scene I’ve ever heard of that requires a splash zone. A cast as strong as Hamlet’s needs a memorable villain, and Bush’s Claudius delivers.
The Rude Mechanicals are entirely student-run. Director Sofia Sandoval-Ferriss and the cast and crew of Hamlet are all students. Though they come from a variety of academic backgrounds, this small troupe of young adults was able to mount a production of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet that will not soon be forgotten.
Running Time: Approximately two hours and 15 minutes, with one 10-minute intermission.
Hamlet played November 17-18, 2017, at the Rude Mechanicals at the Kreeger Auditorium of American University – 4400 Massachusetts Avenue NW, in Washington, D.C.