You’ve seen ten productions of Hamlet, you’ve seen ‘em all, right? There is nothing new you care to see at this point, because even the innovative approach is becoming tired. But have you ever seen a company of actors playing and singing Prince music during intermission? Have you seen a production in the original dialect, which is somewhere between Irish, British, South African and “Huh?” Have you seen both color and gender blind casting? If you say “no” to any of the above, then get thee to a nunnery called Baltimore Shakespeare Factory.
Housed in a community room in St. Mary’s Church in Baltimore, Baltimore Shakespeare Factory converted a chapel into a stage with a permanent set, complete with archways, masking and functional curtains, and a second floor with a Juliet-style balcony. Director Chris Cotterman uses the space in every way, including the floor space in front of the audience, which becomes important during the course of the show as the actors go into the pews and break the fourth wall. This and other devices used by Cotterman are original the way leg warmers are original; they haven’t been worn in so long that the next generation thinks they are the hot new look, when we are really seeing Olivia Newton-John’s costume from “Let’s Get Physical.”
The players are of all ages, colors, and sizes, a band of classy misfits who create incredible theatre together with no set and very spare set dressing. This group is so cohesive that they make Shakespeare look like the popular kids’ table in the cafeteria.
This production honors the original concept that Shakespeare intended, including the aforementioned diction. Ann Turiano does a brilliant job coaching the cast in the dialect, which is challenging for an audience member to understand. Some actors succeed more than others in clarity and diction, due largely to their tone of voice and pacing of speech. You cannot mumble or talk too quickly using this dialect, and it takes great skill to enunciate every syllable while keeping the show moving (another of Cotterman’s promises fulfilled). One standout in this balance is Erin Hanratty, who leads the ensemble with her crisp diction, electric energy, and magnetic stage presence.
Terrance Fleming’s Hamlet is so brilliant that it is painful when one cannot catch every delicious word. Fleming is a more engaging, approachable, funny, less melancholy and more layered Hamlet than one expects, creating a well-developed character who happens to recite some of the most famous soliloquies in all of Shakespeare’s works. Fleming’s Hamlet is a whole person, with quirks and sarcasm, self-amusement and passion, and an incredible ability to keep the audience’s sympathy and attention. This young actor shows seasoning beyond his years and, with some additional diction work, could be a force in the professional Shakespeare arena.
Another standout is Rachel Manu as the feminine, longing, romantic Ophelia. Her transformation from sassy love interest to cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs is the highlight of the production, with Manu’s wild eyes, chilling singing voice, and unruly hair conveying a young woman tortured by loss and shock. Manu’s mesmerizing portrayal leaves the audience open-mouthed by the time she makes her final exit.
Cotterman gives his cast the freedom to play, which allows them to flesh out every moment. They are free to release their funny quirks and end up creating crackling, cohesive energy. As the loyal Polonius, Shaquille Stewart is a powerful, booming, lovable, affable, goofy and paternal figure. When Stewart is on stage, it is hard to remember to watch anyone else. Melanie Bishop’s Gertrude is a layered human being with more depth and layered emotional reactions than expected. Bishop’s body language and facial expressions never waver, creating a more sympathetic Gertrude with torturous confusion as to who can be trusted. Ethan Larsen as Horatio is poignant and understated, with sharp, subtle comic timing and great chemistry with Fleming’s Hamlet. Joshua Street is an infectiously dynamic actor who embodies the hot-headed, playful and tragic Laertes. Street struggles to be heard and understood at times, but his body and face are so expressive that the audience still knows everything he’s thinking and feeling.
Terry O’Hara’s Claudius comes alive more in Act 2, once his evil, conniving self comes out. O’Hara’s opening speech lacks the sinister foreshadowing of what is to come, and his emotional motivation is not always clear. However, his non-verbal rapport with Bishop’s Gertrude seems to be organic and original to these two actors, which gives Claudius a humanity within his toxic relationships. Additionally, Madeleine Adele Koon as Guildenstern is sharp, quick, and crisp. Koon’s diction and stylistic confidence are comforting. Sean Eustis has several roles in the production, and is at his best as the gravedigger, with his exaggerated accent and funny delivery. Conrad Deitrick as Marcellus and others is sorely underutilized. His delivery is spot-on, his body language and facial expressions are captivating, and his few moments on stage leave one unsatisfied and wanting more of his homey, sardonic style. Intern Dylan McKenzie is funny and bold in her small scenes, making strong choices that show that her confidence extends beyond her years.
Cotterman provides a detailed description of the reasoning behind his directorial choices in what is probably the best program this writer has seen in local theatre. This production honors Shakespeare’s original concept, with original accents, house lights up, musical interludes (Shakespeare, used the music of his time in his plays), mixed-era costumes (Shakespeare often used a mixture of historically inaccurate styles), audience interaction, no set (it puts the focus on the language, the acting, and the story), and gender blind casting. This production has no lights or sound cues. The only difference is that while Shakespeare plays are typically longer than I-95, Cotterman promises a two-hour show, not including intermission, and he delivers.
Fight Director Tegan Williams choreographs some satisfying battles, enough to satisfy the salacious audience but not so much that it is off-putting. Intermission brings the biggest surprise, with the cast on stage performing Prince songs with sunglasses, tambourines, guitars, bass, and keyboard. All actors are on stage dancing and singing the entire time, leaving them without a chance to recoup before going on again in Act 2.
There are many iterations of Hamlet done every year, leaving one to wonder if Baltimore Shakespeare Factory’s Hamlet is worth the trip. The answer is yes. This company is unique and Cotterman’s vision is strong and intelligent. Get thee to this production of Hamlet!
Recommended for all ages.
Running Time: 2 hours and 15 minutes, including one 15-minute intermission.
Hamlet plays through May 5, 2019, at the Baltimore Shakespeare Factory, The Great Hall Theater at St. Mary’s Community Center – 3900 Roland Avenue, Baltimore, MD. For tickets, call (410) 662-9455 or go online.
Children under 12 are free, many discounts are available.