Boy, am I eating (upstart) crow. And loving it.
You see, when I learned that Mark Jackson and Shotgun Players were staging a production of Shakespeare’s masterpiece characterized as “Hamlet Roulette,” I was mildly intrigued but not exactly excited. In fact, I thought they were off their rocker. It sounded like a gimmick: Seven actors would learn all the parts, then, at the start of each performance they would pull their assigned part for the night from Yorick’s skull (in front of the audience), take five minutes for preparation, and let ‘er rip. It would be sort of a “Whose Line Is It, Anyway?” version of Hamlet.
WTF? Come on. . .
The result is one of the best Hamlet’s I’ve ever seen. Indeed, opening night generated so much excitement it made me think that, for the rest of my life, I’d be able to boast: “I was there.” Who knew? Jackson’s vision is to view Hamlet itself as a sort of “play within a play” in the lives of the actors performing it, and, by extension, in our own lives, and, as such, a kind of improvisation on the vagaries of fate. Indeed, who’s who and what’s what in this all too confused world where we all, at times, feel that we were spitefully “born to set it right?” In developing this theme, Jackson utilizes more-or-less rehearsal clothes for costumes (athough carefully tricked out by Christine Crook with effective accessories and color schemes), circus skills, Vaudevillian routines, improvisation, mime, and — yes — startling and varied casting combinations — to create a cut-to-the-bone carnival Hamlet that hits hard.
When the show begins, it has the feel of an improv performance. The actors are on edge, foolish, at ease, yet brimming with excitement, goofing around with palpable tension. Pulling their roles from the skull, they leap with excitement, laugh, congratulate one another and run off in glee. The tone is as far from Shakespearean pomposity as one can possibly imagine.
In the production I saw, Hamlet was played by a grey-haired actor who looked to be in his 50’s or 60s. Ophelia (doubling as Horatio) was a young man. Polonius (doubling as Osiric) was a middle-aged Black woman. Claudius and Gertrude were young women, and doubled as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. The most realistic casting in the whole darn thing was the Ghost of King Hamlet (who doubled, pointedly, as The Gravedigger).
Thanks to Jackson’s excellent staging (on a modified thrust stage with Elizabethan elements such as a curtained and raised inner stage well-designed by Nina Ball), none of this is confusing. The audience spent the two and a half hours (which fly by) on the edge of our seats, wondering, “How will they handle this? How will they handle that?” The invention seems endless.
The seven actors, diverse and eccentric, are all outstanding. In the opening night performance, David Sanaiko was a wild eyed Hamlet, bursting with enthusiasm, more manic than depressed, and El Beh was a particularly memorable Claudius. Nick Medina was a surprising, and ultimately moving, Ophelia. Everybody was amazing.
This is some of the smartest theatre I have ever witnessed.
“Hamlet Roulette” is far from a gimmick. The unusual casting choice is not an oddity but a carefully considered element in a “Hamlet” that has been thoroughly examined in every detail.
This one is a masterpiece in every sense of the word. See it, and get your boasting rights!
“Hamlet” continues at the Ashby Theatre through May 15, and will continue in repertory until January, 2017.
“Hamlet” by William Shakespeare, produced by Shotgun Players. Director: Mark Jackson. Set Design: Nina Ball. Lighting Design: Heather Basarab. Costume Design: Christine Crook. Stage Manager: Nikita Kadam. Sound Design: Matt Stines. Props Design: Devon LaBelle. Production Assistant: Heather Kelly-laws.Costume Assistant: Alice Ruiz. Master Electrician: Molly Stewart-Cohn.
El Beh, Kevin Clarke, Nick Medina, Cathleen Riddley, Megan Trout, David Sinaiko, Beth Wilmurt.