Friday, October 20, 2006

Hamlet-with-commentary, performed

Shakespeare, Interrupted by the Great and the Wordy
NYT, October 17, 2006

Imagine that the footnotes in an annotated version of "Hamlet," crowded at the bottom of each page and bursting to explain, suddenly came to life during a performance. What would it be like? Passing strange, to quote Shakespeare.

The New York company Wordplay lists him as the author of its experiment "The Heart of My Mystery: The Hamlet Project" - an adaptation by Barbara Bosch and Mark Ringer, both professors of theater - though Shakespeare might protest.

The lines of his longest play have not only been cut, but even risk being upstaged at the Michael Weller Theater by nearly 30 commentators, from Judith Anderson to Oscar Wilde. The cast, eight men in dark suits and two women, take turns delivering the quotations briskly, before, during or after the edited scenes, on a stage bare except for 10 wooden chairs painted silver and a blackboard on which the annotators' names are printed in chalk.

The gloom of the schoolroom threatens, yet Shakespeare has the last word. His brilliant thriller, with its murders, betrayals and dysfunctional Danish royals, triumphs over the kibitzers. It would be an exaggeration to say that this is an hour and three-quarters of Bartlett's quotations, but the remarks seemed intrusive even as you got used to them.

To Ms. Bosch, who directs, and Mr. Ringer, who plays Polonius and the Gravedigger, the idea might have sounded like a fresh way for students to explore the play. The observations can be gossipy (Anderson on Hamlet: "I think that in his school days he had a little affair with Horatio"); critical (T. S. Eliot: "Far from being Shakespeare's masterpiece, 'Hamlet' is most certainly an artistic failure"); and even presented in music-hall style (light verse by P. G. Wodehouse) - with the majority about the text.

Under the circumstances it is not easy for the actors to sustain dramatic tension, but two of the abbreviated scenes worked well, including the one in which Hamlet (Peter Husovsky) wryly questions his school friends Rosencrantz (James Cleveland) and Guildenstern (Antonio Edward Suarez) about their sudden arrival at court. Bracketed with quotations from Wilde and C. S. Lewis, the exchange was still presented so naturally that it provoked laughter on a recent night.

What was most revealing, though, was how little the commentary mattered when set against the power of Shakespeare's devastating final scene.

"The Heart of My Mystery: The Hamlet Project" continues through Oct. 29 at the Michael Weller Theater, 311 West 43rd Street, sixth floor, Clinton; (212) 352-3101.


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