“Hamlet, Prince of Grief” at Under the Radar

Photo by Mehdi Shaban

Photo by Mehdi Shaban

My experience of Leev Theater Group’s Hamlet, Prince of Grief (which runs through January 20th at Under the Radar) began as soon as I unwrapped myself from my winter gear and found a good angle from which to view the stage. A single beam of light traveled directly through the legs of performer Afshin Hashemi into the audience. Its brightness demanded a moment for my pupils to adjust to the environment. Once this adjustment was made I could begin to see into the darkness on stage. At first I could only read the form of his body as it slowly morphed from one archetypal posture of contemplation to the next. But as I concentrated on that form more, I began to distinguish a face and expressions attached to it. From there I was able to make out Hashemi’s choice to breathe with his mouth open. It reminded me that we are all live vessels in this world with choices of how to comport ourselves. We can be safe and guarded with how we intake oxygen or we can be vulnerable and daring. I was ready to join Hashemi for the latter.

Of course, the challenge with subtitles in performance is that one has to choose how to join it. Do you first cast your attention to the textual language being projected above the action, or do you focus on the body, its expressions, and the sonorous qualities of voice to guide your engagement with all the information?

I must admit, for Hamlet, Prince of Grief I was torn. I had randomly met Mohammad Agheba, the play’s director, months back on a bus out to Montclair State to see Dog Days. We sat next to each other and began a conversation about the theater cultures we each work in. I remembered Agheba sharing that Leev Theater Group was one of few independent theater groups in Iran and that they were interested in creating theater that placed attention on performance over text.

I wonder if that’s why I paid so much attention to the stage during a moment we typically think of as a pre-show and often interact with on a more casual basis. There was also a lovely energy in the room from audience members who were buzzing with conversation, sharing what they had already seen at Under the Radar or considering what they were about to see. I had the opportunity to join this newly created community and join in conversations, but something about the stage and its darkness had drawn me in.

But back to being torn. As soon as the center of the performance began, as soon as the lights illuminated the stage revealing this Hamlet seated behind a wooden table in a worn office chair (I have a vague recollection of it being on wheels and therefore mobile…or was Hashemi just that fluid of a performer?) with an old-fashioned suitcase in close proximity, as soon as Hamlet began to speak and the screen behind him played the linguistic translation of this condensed 30-minute version of Hamlet… I felt the impulse to read. I felt the impulse to concentrate on Mohammad Charmshir’s adaptation of this story. I wanted the textual details that were so far from the story we know: Hamlet on his way to a picnic with friends; Hamlet articulating the need to take a moment in time to rest from thought and studies and to be present with companions, with food, with nature. And I wanted to see how Charmshir employed the iconic moments of Shakespeare’s language. (“To be or not to be” as a tag line for a product being advertised on a billboard.) I thought that by taking in the textual language I would begin to understand how Hamlet connects our two cultures in this contemporary moment. And so I wanted the experience of simply being able to receive the linguistic thoughts as a foundation from which I could then watch the performance again.

This desire, to be able to read the text of the play, faded quickly as objects were introduced.. With the clarity of a child at play, Hashemi animated mundane kitchen items and toys. Miniature plastic palm trees and a turquoise blue, slightly over-sized, pickup truck transported me to the road and the travel that Hamlet took to get to his picnic site. A tiny pan and a tin cup filled with water activated my imagination and created a moment for a shared picnic.

Figurines, which had spilled out of the suitcase and onto the surface of the desk were transformed into the peripheral characters that weave their way in and out of Hamlet’s life: a plastic elephant becomes Hamlet’s mother, its trunk the perfect purveyor of poison. A squeaky bird (perhaps an animal toy) is brilliantly employed (squeezed) to signify the long-winded counselor Polonius.

Lastly, an ordinary cell phone that holds mother on the other end becomes a device that allows Hamlet to travel his story forward. (I realize now that I took Hashemi’s use of the phone as a cue to allow myself to look at the screen and read the text.) Each of these items became a bridge that allowed me to integrate myself into the performance of the piece. I began to understand the power of object-theater. The world became playful and I became entranced by Hashemi’s story telling. Before I knew it we were at the end and I realize we had all been part of a race to allow Hamlet to share his existence with us before it ran out. Because, when you are Hamlet, both you and we know, that life will end.

And for thinking about our cultures… I find myself, days after having seen the production with the last image of this Hamlet (one which I don’t want to reveal to anyone who has yet to see the play) and a translated-phrase echoing in my mind. “I paint the statue dripping with blood.” (The statue Hamlet refers to is the wedding gift he is going to bring home.) It’s a detail I have not been able to shake as I think of the objects Hashemi used throughout the performance. Now, I imagine them soaked in this viscous substance and I wonder: ‘who or what do we make statues for? And what are the important distinctions between archetypal characters resurrected across cultural and temporal boundaries and the solid inanimate iconography that a public lives with everyday?

I think about how actors playing Hamlet are in one sense living statues of a Prince who comes to life for a brief moment to ask us what it means to think, what it means to be (or not be) a student, a scholar, a dreamer, a man, a boy, a son, an heir to a political and cultural legacy. I think about cultures where the statues of political figures figure prominently in every day life as objects of intimidation that make thinking and expression daring acts. Then I think about the power of performance and of play and how the two forms can be subverted and point to something new. Lastly and most importantly, I continue to think of Leev Theater Group and hope to be able to dig into the dramaturgies of their company and future productions.

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