James Cady's Hamlet
Being the most famous play by the most famous playwright who ever lived, Hamlet has a good claim to being the most well-known play ever written. And yet, how many people want to see it in a theater anymore? Unless you've got a movie or TV star in the cast, it's hard to fill the seats for this play in which "a ghost and a prince meet, and everyone ends in mincemeat." (I couldn't resist quoting that line, from the song "That's Entertainment.")
Jim Cady, hip to the present-day attention span, has chopped the play from four hours down to 98 minutes (no intermission). The whole plot is still here, but you might not hear all of your favorite lines. (I waited in vain for "We defy augury.") Overall, I don't feel that anything of significance is missing; in fact, eliminating all the excess verbiage makes the gorgeousness of Shakespeare's writing all that much more overwhelming.
In a nod to the theatrical custom of Elizabethan England, Cady has cast the play with only men. But how do you justify excluding women nowadays? Cady has done it by setting the play in a penitentiary. Hamlet calls Denmark a prison, so why not take him literally? (Apparently, Hamlet has been performed with some frequency within prison walls by convicts as part of their rehab.)
The most radical departure is the casting of three different actors as Hamlet--not at different performances, but at the same time. Like the Trinity, they are separate and yet one. Of course, Hamlet is a severely conflicted young man, and I guess this is Jim Cady's way of making it physically evident. Or maybe he wants to show us the universality of the character by having Hamlet be portrayed simultaneously by an Anglo, a Hispanic, and an African-American (Brennan Foster, Ed Chavez, and Marc Lynch, respectively). This sounds gimmicky and occasionally feels unnecessary, but for the most part, this directorial choice works, and it makes you pay attention to every word being spoken instead of zoning out during the soliloquies.
The cast could not be better. Jim Cady is so highly esteemed in Albuquerque that he was able to assemble a dozen of our city's best actors in mid-summer for several weeks of rehearsals but only a two-week run. The three Hamlets all do very good work. If I have a predilection for Brennan Foster, it's probably because of my preconceived notion of what a Danish prince should look like. But he also gives the best line readings, and has a way of making his eyes look like they're on the verge of tears at the moments when they should be.
Phil Shortell as Claudius, Peter Shea Kierst as Polonius, and Ray Orley as the Player King and the voice of the ghost are the elder statesmen of the group. They have never let me down in any role they've performed, and they know how to play Shakespeare perfectly. Ned Record is a fine Horatio, Matthew Van Wettering is dangerously physical as the hot-headed Laertes, and David Bommarito and Tim MacAlpine are perfectly adept in various roles, including Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.
In the least surprising bit of casting (since he plays women all the time with The Dolls, Albuquerque's drag troupe), Bradd Howard plays Gertrude. Here, he totally avoids camp, and is excellent. Best of all is Michael Weppler as Ophelia. With no accoutrements other than a blue sheet as a skirt, he convincingly transforms into a confused and ill-used young woman. Thanks to his performance, this is the first time I've fully realized just how cruelly Ophelia is treated and how awfully she suffers. It's devastating.
The prison set by Jim Cady, props by Claudia Mathes, and costumes by Carolyn Hogan are all first-rate. The lighting by Jessica Barkl is outstanding. And Albuquerque's go-to guy for fight choreography, Miguel Martinez, has staged a really good one here.
Although the acting is top-notch all around and I wholeheartedly recommend this production, not everything worked for me. During several scenes, the actors in the background make noises, either vocally or by blowing on pipes or scraping things on the chain-link fence, and I found it distracting rather than adding anything to the scene being played, except when the ghost appears.
There are several musical interludes ("in Hamlet?" you might say to yourself, with justification), and they are too ostentatiously eclectic: "Gonna Fly Now (Theme From Rocky)," the Drunken Sailor sea shanty, "I'm In the Mood for Love," "Sweet Georgia Brown," the Merle Haggard prison song "Mama Tried," the folk song "Wild Mountain Thyme," and the inescapable "Folsom Prison Blues" over the closing credits, so to speak. Some of these works, some doesn't. The most god-awful moment was having to watch Osric sing the Right Said Fred abomination "I'm Too Sexy." Didn't Jim Cady and music director Lorri Oliver trust us to not be bored with only words for 98 minutes?
The only other thing that bothered me is that at the end, all the prisoners get up off the floor and raucously celebrate their just having pulled off this play, before they have to go back into lockup. I guess we're supposed to feel their joy, but this struck me as a false move. Is this the effect we want after having just watched one of the greatest dirges for the human condition ever written, one in which only one major character survives? Should we be high-fiving as we leave the theater? To be fair, I can see the other point of view, that the point of tragedy is catharsis, and the actors and audience should feel cleansed and their spirits should be lifted by what they have just experienced. But I still think it would have been more effective if some of those prisoners, after the knife fight, had not gotten up.
Anyway, I cannot encourage you strongly enough to see this unique Hamlet. Even if you think that Shakespeare isn't your thing, or if you think you've seen Hamlet too many times already. You've never seen one like this one, and you most likely never will again.
Hamlet, directed by James Cady, is being presented at the Musical Theatre Southwest Center for Theatre (their "black box") in Albuquerque. Through August 24, 2014. Thursday, Friday, Saturday at 7:30. Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2:00. For more information visit www.musicaltheatresw.com. The theater is on Domingo Street, just north of Central and just east of San Pedro.