How to Hamlet, or Hamleting Hamlet – a response

Photo by Suzi Sadler

How to Hamlet, Or Hamleting Hamlet, running through April 14 at HERE, is another strange and clever creation from Theatre Reconstruction Ensemble. The show opens with an awkward dimming of the house lights, timed precisely so that the audience hushes their conversations and then starts wondering if something has gone wrong, staring at Stage Manager Julia Levine on stage, looking for signs of anxiety or assurance. Eventually, the actors, seated in a short row at the front of the audience, start chatting to each other, and we are let in on the game. All the world’s a stage, and we’re in for a play within a play within a play within a play…

I first encountered TRE’s work just over a year ago with their production of Rhinbecca, NY at The Brick in Williamsburg. Their Hamlet proved to be far less outlandish, largely because we as an audience share a communal knowledge of the source story, but also far more weird, in the witchy kind of way. Somehow exposing all the theatrical tools used to create the presence of a ghost on stage (stray lightbulbs on the periphery, a visible fog machine, caution tape demarcating the playing space) made the spine-tingling moments all the more real. When the lights flickered and static crackled, we waited with baited breath to see which actor would be possessed next by the Shakespearean ghost. The haunting mechanism changed each time, so there was no way to predict the rules of the game, nor how the next scene would shift, keeping us on the edge of our seats.

One of TRE’s greatest distinctions as a New York company (in my opinion) is that they are always playing onstage. No one takes themselves too seriously; no one is concerned with looking pretty. Performers Nathaniel Basch-Gould, Sam Corbin, Joshua William Gelb, and Emily Marro are smart, funny, unabashed actors, clearly accustomed to playing off each other. When they go for a dumb joke (like the sound of glass breaking in the dressing room each time Corbin strikes a chair from the set), they really go for it. Their slapstick is rooted in earnest awkwardness, as each performer plays themselves trying too hard for the sake of the show. TRE’s production offers a refreshingly original take on Hamlet, truly playing with the text and themes, rather than maintaining any sort of reverential attitude towards it.

Don’t mistake this levity for lack of integrity, though. True to their name, TRE interrogates the theatrical form itself with their work. In the two productions I’ve seen, the technicians feature prominently on stage, becoming characters themselves. Levine had some pivotal moments in the show, delivering a nonchalant curtain speech while the actors bickered loudly just off stage, and moving up to the booth in a moment when the actors desperately needed her reassuring presence, abandoning them to their own devices, and the audience to wonder who is really in control, here?

Moreover, dialogue swings from the hilarious and absurd to poetic and profound. Discussing Ophelia’s death, we were laughing along with the crazy gravediggers, and simultaneously feeling the feminist weight of lines like, “Her clothes drowned her.” The only point where my attention drifted was the Shakespearean monologue at the end, recounting the Ancient Greek myth of Priam’s death at the hands of Pyrrhus. As an audience, our attention hadn’t been trained for such noble speeches, and I found myself waiting for the punch line. Although Basch-Gould gave a righteous delivery, the moment felt a little anticlimactic after such hijinks.

Overall, How to Hamlet, Or Hamleting Hamlet, was a thoroughly enjoyable 70 minute visit with the dark and wily world of everyone’s favorite Prince of Denmark. After you see the show, I have to suggest Slings & Arrows, the early aughts Canadian TV series, as a companion piece. Both TRE’s production and the series share a heartfelt, bumbling quality, while still managing to capture moments of true theater magic. Sometimes, all it takes is pulling back the curtains.

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