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    Ways to stage old chestnut Hamlet by Aaron Beall Essay

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    How many ways are there to stage that old chestnut Hamlet? In more ways “than are dreamt of in your philosophy,” according to Aaron Beall, executive director of New York City’s NADA Inc. A four-month marathon of more than 20 different Hamlets–productions featuring rap, video, pantomime and even animal acts–will all fret their hours upon this downtown experimental stage, allowing the best and brightest of New York’s avant-garde to take their stabs at the gloomy Dane. And although it may be the most written-about play of all time, Beall calls Hamlet “an incredibly elusive and mysterious work–and this festival proves that the play means something vastly different to everyone who touches it.”

    Neither a borrower nor a lender he: Beall notes that his budget-less festival, which began in September and continues through Dec. 5, is “an enormous challenge, financially speaking.” What started as a bare-bones production of the second quarto bloomed into a “Hamletathon” when he discovered that “Hamlet is a story that so many ‘downtown’ artists want to tell in their own ways. Soon, everybody seemed to have a Hamlet they wanted to do.” Included in the festival are Heiner Muller’s HAMLET-MACHINE (performed in four back-to-back productions in different locations), the world premiere of Andres Ibanez’s Ophelia, Arden Party’s solo-Hamlet, Janice Hoffman’s Gertrude’s Revenge and Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.

    Though this be madness, yet there is method in’t: Beall has set up a “Hamlet Hotline” offering up-to-the-minute information for the intrepid theatregoer. “The festival’s an opportunity for people to see so many fresh takes on this play–and none of them are frivolous. With the amazing range of performers in this festival we will all learn so much more about Hamlet, and especially what the play means to our generation.” In fact–for those TV-weaned twentysomethings who’ve only seen Hamlet staged on Gilligan’s Island (episode #78, starring Phil Silvers as the marooned metteur-enscene, Harold Hecuba)–NADA will remount the popular TV sitcom’s musical version alongside more traditional renderings.

    Still, many of the artists promise productions closer to Old Vic at night than Nick at Nite. The festival opened with Randolph Curtis Rand’s staging of The Tragicall Historie of Hamlet, Prince of Denmarke, a presentation of the complete second quarto (circa 1604). “One thing that is immediately apparent in Q2 is that the cuts made in the First Folio of 20-odd years later make sense,” says Rand. “Many of Q2’s speeches were later shortened to keep the action going, but at the expense of some of the characters.” Rosencrantz, for example, slings some arrows of gossip with Hamlet in Q2, and Fortinbras becomes a meatier role. Still, Rand thinks that even with the roughly 1,500 extra lines of dialogue, his Q2 represented a rare opportunity to see “the urtext of Hamlet.”

    A dunghill idiot slave 

    This script is not to be confused with the first quarto (Q1)–the infamous ‘bad’ quarto–staged in the marathon by Benjamin Lloyd. “Q1 is in many ways a more modern Hamlet,” says Lloyd, who couldn’t resist undertaking the title role. “It’s about two-thirds the length of the First Folio, and the action plays more quickly. Hamlet is a character less in the throes of indecision, and more along the lines of a revenge tragedy anti-hero. It’s more Jacobean than Elizabethan, and its fragmentary feeling gives it a cinematic quality.” Q1 focuses like a laser beam on betrayal and retribution, and Hamlet’s ruminations are more off-color. (“O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I” becomes “O, what a dunghill idiot slave am I”). Lloyd is eager to prove that the so-called bad quarto (most scholars contend that the first quarto was not written by Shakespeare) is not bad at all, and his edited version of Q1 may be the only playscript of its kind. “Because it’s been buried under the scorn of academe for so long, few people even know it exists,” Lloyd says.

    Get thee to a nunnery: Feminist interpreters have often wrought textual revenge on Hamlet, and director Deb Margolin has her own insights into the play, as realized in her What’s With Hamlet?, a work originally staged at WOW Care in 1989. “Clearly, Hamlet is in love with Horatio as much as he is with Ophelia,” Margolin reasons. “If he had been allowed to have sex with Horatio, or have a reasonable philosophical discourse with Ophelia, there would be no need for the carnage all over the stage at the end.”

    To theatricalize this premise, Margolin’s all-female cast featured the same actress playing Horatio and Ophelia, and an offstage voice that Hamlet (played by Margolin) turns to for guidance during his her moments of hesitation, And her advice to her players? “It’s an extravaganza and it should get a lot of laughs. Yes, Hamlet’s a sexist play, but it’s also a very sexy play. I want to celebrate that, and have fun with it.”

    Trippingly off the tongue 

    David Herskovits the director of Target Margin Theater who is returning to NADA after his go-for-the-throat Titus Andronicus two years ago also cast a woman as Hamlet, but sees “the ‘leap of gender’ like any other leap an actor makes in performance, such as playing the King of Denmark, for example.” In fact, it is to this gap between an actor’s mask and character–that Herskovits wants to call attention. “All the characters of Hamlet are famously complex. Instead of finding the psychology beforehand, I want to ‘blow up’ the theatricality from moment to moment, and let the spectator figure out the motivations after the fact.” Much of the play was cut, keeping many oft-quoted passages trippingly off the actors’ tongues including the text of all the soliloquies. “But the soliloquies are still very much there,” he insists. “The point is to refocus the interest back onto the soliloquies, but through the silence through what the characters are not saying.”The play’s the thang: Rob Krakovski explains that his rap Hamlet: The Trage-D of Prince Hammy T by Chill Will, co-written with Geoff Lower, “treats the story of Hamlet as a current event, and shows how it’s been manipulated and distorted by the media. The rap sets it all straight–with rappers in character delivering rap soliloquies–and the ‘play within the play’ becomes a rap video.” Krakovski generated ersatz “news events” (a la Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous coverage of the royal wedding of Claudius and Gertrude) to point up the fourth estate’s hand in the rottenness of Denmark. “A lot of rap music is interested in sampling other music,” he says, “and I’m sampling Hamlet along with contemporary works and bits and pieces of other Shakespeare to complete the text.”

    But if you really think Hamlet’s a great Dane, then you’d have loved Gary Goldberg’s Hamster, starring Duck, Goldberg’s Golden Retriever, as Horatio. (Initially intending to cast a pen full of pigs in his two-hour language-less performance, Goldberg soon discovered that they were too messy.) Animal acts are a tricky business, but Beall insists that Hamster is a “serious exploration” of the tragedy, and Goldberg is quick to point out that the other characters will be played by humans.

    A peep show for passersby 

    To sleep, perchance to dream: For those who haven’t gone home to sleep, midnight cabaret performances in the marathon include painter/writer Kathy Hemingway-Jones in her multimedia interpretation of the play; Rob Roy in Words, Words, Words: A Video Hamlet by Mark Young; and performance-art doyen Stuart Sherman in a “post-narrative” presentation of Hamlet (Or Else What?), first staged 10 years ago. Beall will close the festival with a self-directed solo production titled A Play Within a Player using only one chair, one film projector and one screen.”It’s as much of the First Folio as one actor can do alone and the audience can stilt find bearable,” Beall muses. All the curtains will come down for A Play Within a Player, and the turned-around audience will be able to view the passersby on Ludlow Street (who will, in turn, be able to view the performance in the theatre) throughout the evening. Beall explains: “I want to contrast the life inside the playwright with the actor’s inner life, as well as the life inside the theatre with the life out on the street.”

    NADA has made a bargain with itself to do the same thing with a 20-play “Faust Fest” next year, and Beall feels confident that there are plenty of downtown artists with similar strivings. He likes the idea of “opening each season with a four-month exploration of one play. Of course,” he adds, “it has to be a ‘great’ script like Hamlet, or there wouldn’t be enough interest.”

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