Thursday night’s premiere of Hamlet went very well, give or take a tech glitch or two. Friday night’s sophomore show
was cancelled because of a big blizzard. So that brings us to tonight: Show Two, which was supposed to have been Show Three. I’m optimistic; I know lots of great folks who are planning to come see it tonight, assuming they can shovel themselves out before curtain time.
For those of you who are stuck in some remote (hopefully warmer!) locale, and aren’t going to be able to see the show before it closes on February 7, I’ve decided to start describing a few of the moments I’m most proud of — though, as you’ll see, many of them weren’t even my idea.
Hamlet, Meet Hamlet: For patrons who know the play well, our prologue scene is probably disorienting. Most productions either start with 1.1, with soldiers on the battlements; or else they skip to 1.2, with the court assembled to hear Claudius eugooglize his brother. But our show starts with a gravedigger singing a jazz tune, and two 10-year-old kids who get spooked by a skull. After Young Ophelia stomps off angrily because Young Hamlet seems more interested in the skull than in her, a transition begins, and grown-up Hamlet enters, approaches his younger self, and accepts the skull with trepidation. It’s the first of a series of surreal but hard-hitting stage moments that track Hamlet’s lifelong obsession with mortality.
Gertrude’s Ribs: My costume designer, Bradley Murphy, did a magnificent job of creating a consistent, self-contained world that evokes 1920s fashions but suggests another level of corruption and decadence beneath. But one of the costumes that immediately piques the audience’s interest was created by guest designer Paula Muise. From the front, it looks just like a slinky 20s dress — black with strings of white pearls that suggest ropes or handcuffs, maybe. But when Hamlet rejects her half-hearted reassurances, she turns her back on him — and us — and reveals a glittering ribcage design on the back. It’s revealing without being overtly sexy, and simultaneously ostentatious and macabre. Best of all, it’s a visual throw-forward to the Ghost’s costume, which incorporates an actual ribcage into its tattered robes and armour.
Soliloquus Interruptus: Different versions of Hamlet place “To be or not to be” at different points in the play, but it invariably appears in the first half of a two-act adaptation (the recent Benedict Cumberbatch-led production allegedly opened the play with it during previews, but reversed that decision when the critics excoriated the director for “front-loading” the show). I like teasing my audience, so I’ve hidden Hamlet’s most famous soliloquy quite late in the play, and at two points earlier, I have Hamlet entering, sighing, and getting as far as “To be, or…” before he’s interrupted by other characters onstage. I was concerned that this running gag might undermine the power of the speech when it finally arrived, but I needn’t have worried; Wesley brings such urgency to the (normally dour and dithering) monologue that you immediately forget everything that has come before, and get drawn right into his dilemma.
“Getting drawn in” is, indeed, a motif in the production, both for the characters (Hamlet gets sucked into a grave before meeting his dad, Ophelia in the stream, etc.) and for the audience. I’m hoping that, even if patrons can’t follow the thread of the language 100% of the time (even I get overwhelmed by Shakes-speak sometimes), they’ll at least be absorbed by the phantasmagoric sound and light show that surrounds the speakers. So far, so good.