A.N.O.N. Productions has done it again. They have brought another piece of theatre to life in a way that makes audiences think, feel and even learn. After their beautiful production of SNOW, a new work by Ashley Griffin, they have switched back to what I understand is their normal MO, revitalizing and rethinking Shakespeare. Many companies try to bring new life to the bard’s work and it often feels contrived and unfortunate (i.e. King Lear in space). However this production of HAMLET (which Griffin is directing) keeps true to the language and heightened state that is the Elizabethan era while bringing modern relevance to it.
Hamlet is widely considered to be the greatest play in the English language. It is the pride of Shakespeare repertory companies, and the bane of many a high school student. By far Shakespeare’s most famous tragedy (if not his most famous play,) Hamlet follows the trials of young Danish Prince Hamlet who, after his father dies, watches his uncle take the crown and marry his mother. When the ghost of Hamlet’s father comes back and tells Hamlet that he was murdered by that same uncle, Hamlet is called to avenge his father’s death, plunging him into despair, madness (?), and a desperate introspection of what it means to be human.
What A.N.O.N. Productions has done is nothing short of giving us a HAMLET that is more immediate, and vital for our times than any I have seen. In the wake of the recent election, and stories from across the country of horrifying misogyny (especially from those in power,) violence against the LGBTQ community and political corruption, I never thought that HAMLET could, in so powerful a way, speak to me personally, or to exactly what I’m feeling at this moment in our country. This show was apparently originally done last fall, where it did so well that it was brought back this year. I did not see the original, but it seems to be something of a prophetic production as the issues it raises have only become more potent in the last few months.
Inspired by Emma Watson’s He For She campaign, this production takes place in modern times (or at least some slightly dystopian future,) where Hamlet is a woman who has been raised as a man for succession purposes. Hamlet’s love, Ophelia, traditionally the paragon of wilting damsel-in-distress femininity, here is a sensitive man who, not living up to the highly militaristic and stereotypical ideals of masculinity so highly valued in this world, is constantly bullied for his vulnerability and kind heart. Hamlet’s best friend Horatio is the only woman in the military (in a timely, Katniss Everdeen esque guise,) and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Hamlet’s toady friends from school, are here played as diabolical mean girls of the Regina George, or Heathers variety. All other characters are traditionally gendered.
What you have as a result is a production that not only makes certain elements in the show clearer than I have yet seen but remarkably makes us relate to all the characters onstage – especially Hamlet and Ophelia – whose relationship is clearly the center of this production. I do not want to give away all the wonderfully surprising, and incredibly intelligent decisions Griffin has made, but suffice it to say that lines of text take on new meaning, the nunnery scene, far from the traditional “abuse of Ophelia,” is now a heart wrenchingly painful break up. Hamlet is no longer a vacillating, inactive, slightly woman hating young man, and Ophelia a romantic ideal of femininity respectively, but both take on the quality of everymen.
Returning from A.N.O.N.’s production of SNOW, Ryan Clardy is once again fantastic here, in a completely different role as Ophelia. Physically, Mr. Clardy is everything this world would expect from a young man – he is tall, strong, and very handsome. Yet Clardy has found an extraordinary vulnerability and sensitivity that is never saccharine or annoying, but makes completely believable that this man has been pushed around by just about everyone his whole life. However Clardy has not simply appropriated more feminine (in the stereotypical definition) qualities. This is a man with deep anger and frustration bubbling below the surface – anger that he clearly loathes and fears. He is strong in a way this world does not value or understand, and when it all comes bursting forth it makes for, honestly, the most stunning and potent mad scene I’ve yet seen. It’s an incredibly brave performance, not to be missed.
Griffin not only directs this piece but also does a remarkable job leading it as Hamlet. She has done two things with the role that seem contradictory – she is the most vulnerable Hamlet I have yet seen, and also the most active. HAMLET has historically been said to be the “tragedy of a man who could not act.” Though Griffin’s Hamlet is in deep turmoil about whether or not, or even how to take revenge against her uncle, she most certainly takes action both around, and within her internal debate. Indeed, Griffin’s HAMLET is instead the tragedy of a man who is too human. Her Hamlet cuts to the heart of the character – this is a young man in abject grief who, try as he might, cannot stop feeling. And because of the concept of this production, the “limbo” Hamlet finds himself in (he should be King, but is not, is and is no longer a son, is grief stricken but can not speak his heart,) is physically manifest. She is neither a woman, nor a man. I saw Griffin in SNOW as well, and did not recognize her for a significant portion of the first act of HAMLET. She adopts her masculine guise (and the feminine qualities that, try as he might, this Hamlet can’t quite eliminate) excellently. My favorite part of her performance was the infamous “To be or not to be” speech – traditionally the most difficult to pull off, yet here simple and heartbreaking. And I very much enjoyed her organic facility with the language.
Clardy and Griffin are an excellent pair, and their chemistry is again on beautiful display. A.N.O.N. has made a smart choice in continuing to pair these two together.
The rest of the cast is wonderful. Jennifer-Elizabeth Cooper is a stalwart Horatio, and the only person in the show who seems truly comfortable in their own skin. Her journey from friend to protector is beautifully done, even with the lack of lines Shakespeare wrote for the character. Her final moments in the show are some of the most honest acting I have seen.
Brian McCormack makes for both a charming, yet conniving Claudius, and a truly terrifying Ghost. In this production Hamlet’s father is the exemplar of the kind of dad who will beat you if you don’t man up and stop crying. When paired with his otherworldliness (here far more Walking Dead than angelic messenger,) it is a truly horrifying situation Hamlet finds himself in when called upon to murder his uncle.
Elise Gainer is a kind Gertrude, whose need to live in denial helps justify her character’s actions and treatment of those around her. Gainer is a smart actress, finding great moments throughout the show. However there are moments when she slightly falls out of character from what seem to be a dropped line or forgetting what comes next that appear, to me, to be more from nerves than anything. Once she trusts herself she will rival many of the divas we all know and love.
Ashley Farley and Abby Hart lend much needed comedy to the proceedings as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, all while keeping a level of dangerous menace just below the surface. They remind you that mean girls can be just as capable of murder as a makeover. And, representing the kind of femininity that this world values, their beauty and charm serve as a stark reminder of everything Hamlet will never be allowed to have.
Farley shines as the Player Queen and the main Gravedigger. The players are normally forgettable plot devices but Farley brings the Queen to life making her not only memorable but lovely. As the Gravedigger her quick wit and charm make her a great comedian and straight man for Hamlet’s jokes.
Hart is quite possibly one of the best finds of this production. As the foolish Rosencrantz she rides the line between a “dumb blonde” caricature, and conniving woman. We laugh at her when she speaks, but if you watch her in her stiller moments you can see the inner wheels turning – calculating her next move. As Osric, traditionally one of the most forgettable characters in the play, the audience cannot help but laugh. Coming in after the emotional grave scene Osric truly is an idiot, and much needed comedic relief. Hart has found a way to make us happy this character survives the end of the show.
James Luse is a delightfully bumbling Polonius who, along with his golden-boy son Laertes (Michael Bauer) would rather take on the whole of the Norwegian army than let themselves express vulnerability. Luse, while lovable, needs to pick up his pace. In scenes where he is the main character speaking the audience starts to fade. Polonius also has one of the most iconic speeches in the show (that doesn’t belong to Hamlet) and several times Luse paraphrased his lines.
Bauer seems to be a bit of an odd man out here. Though certainly attractive, he does not look like the paragon of masculinity that the world defines him as – especially in this company. He has found great comedy in the early parts of the show, and his return at the end opens him up, but also doesn’t always make sense. His shift between emotions is not always organic and is somewhat jarring at times. And he didn’t seem quite as facile with the sword fighting as Griffin.
Anthony Michael Martinez does an excellent job of playing multiple characters, most notably Bernardo and Prince Fortinbras, though he often stumbles a bit into overacting in some of the more dramatic moments. Martinez also has a problem upstaging his fellow actors and needs to learn to share the stage.
Though I admired the simplicity of the design concept, I can’t help wondering what might be done with this production given more resources. The costuming could have been more unified, and the set and lighting plot were limited at best. Dialects were a bit inconsistent amongst some of the cast members, and there were many times that the air should have been taken out of scenes.
This is a Hamlet that is truly intelligent and unique. It reminds us of the tragedy that can occur when corruption, manipulation and oppression trump love, empathy and equality. When human beings are not equal, when violence equates with respect and sensitivity is mocked, it leads to the destruction of everyone. This Hamlet cuts through gender, and even, to a degree, sexual orientation. What we have is an everyman Hamlet who is all of us, and, as in Emma Watson’s words at her UN He For She speech, calls for all of us to be both sensitive, and strong. Griffin has directed a remarkable, and deeply moving production. I applaud her, and A.N.O.N. for bringing it to the stage. This is the HAMLET to bring your teenage children to. If this is the kind of art that develops in response to the current state of America, maybe there will be something good that comes out of it after all.(All pictures by Micah Joel)
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