Steal This Hamlet

The New York Shakespeare Exchange’s Hamlet 10, now playing at the Flamboyán Theater, is a production of rare emotional power and a directorial tour de force. In bringing us a Hamlet played, not by one, but by all ten of its actors, Hamlet is liberated from the very idea of a character as a role played by a single actor. Could there be any convention more fundamental to the theater itself than the notion that a character is played by, and physically embodied by, the actor who plays that character? However interesting the design of the set and skillful the acting, what makes this production significant in the world of the theater in a way that no other recent production can rival, is its upturning of this most unquestioned convention, the identification of one actor with one role.

Ross Williams, the director of this production and the producing artistic director and founder of the New York Shakespeare Exchange, not only distributes the role and lines of Hamlet among all ten of his actors, he ignores gender, age, race and ethnicity entirely in the assigning of roles. Two women play the roles of Polonius and of Rosencrantz. Julie DeLaurier plays a wonderful speechifying and bumbling Polonius and Sarin Monae West, a feisty Rosencrantz. Hamlet’s lines are spoken at times by women and at other times by men of a diverse cast who differ in age, in race, and in ethnicity. Sometimes lines are spoken in unison and sometimes, within a soliloquy perhaps, the lines travel from one actor to the next, from one gender to the next, from one race, ethnicity, and body type to the next.

Hamlet is thus fluid. He is everywhere and nowhere; he is no one and everyone. Much as, in the collective imagination, he has grown over the past centuries to mythic proportions. Hamlet in this production is not a body but a presence, one that physically expands and contracts according to how many actors are speaking his lines at any given moment and where and how the actors are grouped on the “stage.” When all ten actors, some standing up close to the front row of the audience and others further back, spoke the opening section of the all too familiar “To be or not to be,” together but deliberately not in unison, followed by one actor declaiming the speech in its entirety from center stage, the words burst through their familiar containers. One of Shakespeare’s greatest soliloquies had regained an originary power and was newly fierce, fresh, and wrenching in a way we could not have imagined.

Elivia Bovenzi, the costume designer, has dressed the actors in relatively comfortable modern dress. In a brilliant stroke, the scenic designer, Jason Lajka and the director, Williams, dreamt up a stage that consists of a set of boxes, much like oversized children’s blocks, some of them with several steps and some not, that can be pulled apart and rearranged at will. In the opening scene of the play, there is a center stage of these boxes pushed together from which the actors speak. In the wonderful gravedigger’s scene, actor Nathaniel P. Claridad jumps into a turned over box, while the other boxes have been pulled from view.

With so minimalist a set and so multiple, fluid and large a presence of Hamlet himself, the production lifts Shakespeare’s language to a commanding position. And that, is to privilege the beauty, the genius, the poetry and the emotional range of the essential Shakespeare.

Who would have thought that an audience could so “suspend its disbelief” as to go along with and accept this new and wildly imaginative approach to the character of Hamlet. Williams and the New York Shakespeare Exchange have stretched theater conventions and opened our eyes to possibilities within the theater we had not dreamed of. There is no doubt that the theater of the future will steal from Williams’ Hamlet 10!

Hamlet 10 runs until April 9 at the Flamboyán Theater (107 Suffolk St. between Rivington St. and Delancey St.) in Manhattan. Evening performances are Wednesday through Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and matinees are Sunday at 3 p.m. Tickets cost $18. To purchase tickets, call 917-428-0065 or visit shakespeareexchange.org.

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