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The Tragicall Historie of Hamlet Prince of Denmarke

Theatre Review by Howard Miller

Photo by Tony Tambasco
Who better to expound on Bad Quarto's highly energized seat-of-the-pants production of The Tragicall Historie of Hamlet Prince of Denmarke than William Shakespeare himself: "Though this be madness, yet there is method in 't."

The company, founded in 2010, specializes in performing the earliest published versions of works by Shakespeare and his contemporaries. The term "bad quarto" is a real one, applied by literary scholars to such manuscripts, whose provenance they can only surmise. Best hypotheses are that these unauthorized texts were hastily written down during or shortly after actual early performances, either by audience members or by the actors themselves. While there is a certain degree of inventiveness and improvisation in this current production, it is important to understand that the company is working from an actual published manuscript from 1603. We simply do not know how well it represents Shakespeare's intentions.

Director Tony Tambasco and the cast members understand what it is that they do best. They are quite adroit at turning minimal production values and short rehearsal time to their advantage, suggesting that what they are doing is reproducing in spirit the circumstances under which the plays were originally performed. The space at Studios 353 is a bare room, with folding chairs wrapping around the perimeter for the audience. The lighting is the overhead bare bulbs that remain lit the entire time. The actors wear street clothes, supplemented with a few random costume elements, cheap wigs and beards, and a prop or two.

You will recognize many familiar lines, but you will also hear Hamlet's famous soliloquy rendered thus: "To be, or not to be, Ay there's the point/To Die, to sleep, is that all?" Some of the characters' names are also different, with Polonius referred to here as Corambis, and the two functionary couriers called Rossencraft and Gilderstone.

As performed by Alex Dabertin, Hamlet's "antic disposition" is not feigned madness but comes off as very real. This Hamlet is an angry and anxious young man, confronted as he is with the suspicious death of his father, threatened by his uncle, now the usurping new king, and receiving little help from his "incestuous" mother. He is bitterly sarcastic, frenetic, and dangerous to those around him.

The cast as a whole projects high energy. James Overton's portrayal of the Ghost of Hamlet's Father, for example, is the most ferocious I've every seen, and Andre Silva's Leartes is bombastic as well. To balance out all of this testosterone, the other cast members (especially Kitty Mortland as Queen Gertred, Beatriz Browne as Ofelia, and Rachel Matuse as Horatio) play it pretty much straight.

This is not necessarily the best production of Hamlet you will ever see. The quality of the acting varies, there are occasional flubbed lines, and the shoestring budget shows. But the spirited performances and the company's commitment to giving us a version of Shakespeare based on a rarely produced early manuscript make it well worth the visit.

The Tragicall Historie of Hamlet Prince of Denmarke
Through April 10
Studio 353, 353 West 48th Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Brown Paper Tickets