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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

‘Hamlet’ triumphs over structural problems with great acting

Published: November 8, 2013
Section: Arts, Etc., Featured

From a company that historically has brought hilarity and variety to traditional Shakespeare plays, this week Hold Thy Peace presents “Hamlet.” In years past, the company has transported “Much Ado about Nothing” to the 1990s and set “Macbeth” in the era of World War II. But this year, Hold Thy Peace has played it pretty safe, making only one small (and confusing) plot change. In traditional performances of “Hamlet,” Hamlet has a close friend and confidant Horatio, who is the only other character that can see the ghost of Hamlet’s father. In Hold Thy Peace’s version, both Horatio and Hamlet’s father are spectors, the dead that only Hamlet can see.

The acting in “Hamlet” is fantastic, enthralling audiences in every scene from a monologue to a battle scene. But this twist in the plotline is not supported by the lines in the play.

For those somehow still unaware of the plotline of “Hamlet” (it is one of the most widely referenced pieces of literature in English), Hamlet’s father is recently deceased and his mother hurriedly marries his uncle who assumes the throne. Hamlet is visited by the ghost of his father, who says his uncle, Claudius, is a murderer. Hamlet spends the rest of the play toying with the idea of revenge.

This version of the play is directed by Samantha LeVangie, who writes of the plot change in the Director’s Note: “I thought more about Hamlet Sr., the Ghost of Hamlet’s father, and began to lament that Ghosts didn’t play a larger part in the production,” wrote LeVangie, pointing out the ghost is only in four small scenes. LeVangie said she spent time focusing on Horatio, who is only seen in scenes with Hamlet—his sole relationship is with the mad prince. “So what if I took Horatio—the character with whom the audience largely identifies, the voice of reason, the foundation for Hamlet’s sanity—and made him a Ghost? The change is two-fold. First Hamlet … must battle with two layers of insecurity in his own reality to move forward. And second, what does this mean for his sanity? Because now, Hamlet’s the only living person in his entire universe who can see Ghosts.”

Well, what this means for the play is, honestly, Hamlet is insane and off his rocker throughout the whole show. The way Hamlet reacts to Horatio makes no sense. The ghost of his long dead best friend appears, and Hamlet shrugs it off as though it happens everyday. On the other hand, when the ghost of his dead father appears, he is so amazed and gladdened to speak with the apparition. Hold Thy Peace and director Samantha LeVangie change many of the traditional lines throughout the play, but what they should have focused on is adding more lines to Hamlet’s introduction to Horatio. The fact that he does not react in shock is not believable for audiences, and it took me out of the magic of the play. It insinuates that Hamlet is mad from the start, and if that is true, then why am I spending so much of my time watching the motives and whims of a mad man?

While this structural device may not have worked, the acting compensated for it. Hamlet was played by Alex Davis ’15. Davis lit up the stage with his dramatic monologues. He would often lunge across the stage screaming, or fall to his knees crying. “Hamlet” has many monologues and it can get a bit tedious as time goes on, but Davis avoided this problem through his sheer stage presence. The image of him running across the stage and violently shaking Ophelia, screaming “Get thee to a nunnery” is not one audiences will soon forget.

While the idea of Horatio as a ghost may not have gelled, the acting by Aaron Fischer ’14 was right on the mark. Fischer even walked like a ghost, hauntingly and hesitantly. At once eager to help Hamlet and cautious, Fischer had great chemistry with Davis and their scenes together were enjoyable to watch.

Other slightly smaller roles were still well cast and carried out. Claudius, played by Ryan Kacani ’15, pulled off the slimy, overbearing uncle very well, with appropriately timed facial expressions and a royal aura. Polonius, played by Max Moran ’17, lit up the stage with his jolly attitude and laughter. A first-year playing an elder, Moran even walked across the stage like he was somebody’s dad. Rosencrantz (Connor Wahrman ’17) and Guildenstern (Zack Kennedy ’16) acted in tandem, bowing together and conspiring hilariously. While they came off a bit like caricatures, they were the few that succeeded in making the audience laugh.

Acting fell flat in only a few places. Gertrude (Page Smith ’17) spoke too quickly and softly, often adding nothing to the scenes she performed in. Ophelia (Barbara Spindle ’16) would use too many gestures and rolling of her eyes; she acted like she was in a modern play not in 16-century Denmark. This set her apart from the other actors and from the lines she was delivering, and not in a postive way.

The set was used throughout, but was very effective, and was given a boost by the use of haunting music. The makeup was well done; the ghosts looked sallow and inhuman. But the costumes were confusing to the audience. While some, like Gertrude, wore period-style dresses, others like Hamlet wore modern clothes. Hamlet sported jeans and different T-shirts.

The original “Hamlet” is a very long play, and LeVangie and co. did an excellent job of cutting the script down to showcase only the crucial moments. And while LeVangie’s dream of changing Horatio’s character was not for the best, Hold Thy Peace members proved they can bring to-be-or-not-to-be to life in front of our very eyes.