Review: ‘Hamlet’ / ‘Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead’ at the Sargent Theater (NYC)

I know what you’re thinking — I’ve seen Hamlet before.  But if the world made more sense, buses of high schoolers and college kids who are studying Shakespeare would show up at the Sargent Theatre to experience Shakespeare with this engrossing production of Hamlet from The Seeing Place instead of experiencing his work through Sparknotes (or worse, Wikipedia).

seeing-place-hamlet

Photo credit: Russ Rowland

The great thing about writing a review of Hamlet is that I don’t have to write a plot summary.  Its language is so ingrained in our culture that probably everyone uses a phrase from its text daily without even realizing it (I always loved the Isaac Asimov quote, “There is the story of the woman who read Hamlet for the first time and said, ‘I don’t see why people admire that play so. It is nothing but a bunch of quotations strung together.’”)  The Seeing Place presents a very contemporary version of Hamlet, yet at the same time the group adheres to some Shakespearean traditions.  Like in Shakespeare’s day, the supporting actors double roles (in one particular smart match, David Arthur Bachrach plays the ghost of Hamlet’s father and also the Player King, who is a stand-in for Hamlet’s father in the play-within-a-play “The Mousetrap.”  Oh yeah, he also makes a fantastic Gravedigger.) 

Another standout is Jason Wilson, who plays Claudius.  I’ve seen Wilson in previous Seeing Place productions, but never in as prominent of a role as he is here.  His Claudius — dressed in a well-tailored suit and always clutching a glass of alcohol — is an oily, opulent, performance.  There’s this wonderful moment at the beginning of Hamlet when Gertrude (Janice Hall, who also hits the booze pretty hard, which cleverly shows her solidarity with Claudius) is speaking to Hamlet and Wilson gently kisses her on the forehead.  Wilson’s Claudius is younger than the typical Claudius, which also adds to the conflict between Hamlet and Claudius.

As for Hamlet, what can I say?  Brandon Walker‘s forte is emotionally conflicted, mentally troubled characters, and if that doesn’t describe Hamlet’s character I don’t know what does.  He has an intense interpretation of Hamlet’s mental state and this lends itself to his delivery (particularly the “O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I” monologue, which belongs on Walker’s reel).  Responding to that, Erin Cronican‘s Ophelia is less coquettish and is tougher, less of a “punching bag” than she typically is portrayed.  Of course, Ophelia has mental issues of her own, and as usual she matches Walker’s intensity with an on-stage breakdown of her own.

The Seeing Place is doing Hamlet in repertory with Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, and the cast plays the same roles in both productions.  This gives Rosencrantz (Philip Lakin) and Guildenstern (Daily Actor contributor Robert King) the well-deserved spotlight, as Lakin and King are on stage as the foolish characters for the entire play.  The material is inherently absurd, particularly when the principal cast members in Hamlet show up and portray their characters (in the words of Christopher Guest’s Nigel Tufnel) turned up to eleven.  In particular, Walker’s Easy Rider/Rambo Hamlet is a scary, scary dude. 

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead is a tough piece to follow if you’re not familiar with what it intends to do, so it’s probably a better idea to see The Seeing Place’s Hamlet first just to familiarize you with the material.  While this production never quite hits “hilarious,” its amusing throughout because of Lakin and King.  Lakin’s performance is more high-energy than King’s, but that gives King the ability to be the more mild-mannered “let’s think this through” part of a comical duo (think Oliver Hardy in Laurel and Hardy).  If we were still in the days of two-reel comedy shorts, there’s a pretty good chance Lakin and King could’ve made a mint.

Hamlet is the can’t-miss of the two, but at the very least you should see Hamlet first and then, if you like what TSP is doing (and you probably will), come back to see Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead bumble across the stage.  The simplistic set, atmospheric music cues, and on-point lightning fully immerses the audience in the plays, and as I said at the beginning of this it’s a wonderful way to get to know Shakespeare’s characters in new ways.

Hamlet runs at ATA’s Sargent Theater (314 W 54th Street, New York) until June 29.  Performances run Thursdays through Saturdays. Performances of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern run on Wednesdays, Saturdays, and Sundays.  The productions also alternate Tuesdays.  Check out http://www.seeingplacetheater.com for more information.

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