Given all the bloodshed that brings Shakespeare’s Hamlet to a close, there would seem to be limited opportunities for a sequel. However, as the box office success of countless horror movie sequels, and the artistic success of Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead have shown, there is no reason to let a pile of corpses get in the way of spinning off a new story. In her ingenious but difficult new play, Isabelle Assante took that lesson and extended the life of Hamlet past the title character’s death. She did so using Shakespeare’s text: cut up and rearranged, the original play’s lines, plus a few incidental additions, have become Horatio. The new production is born from a verse spoken by the dying Danish prince to his friend Horatio, in which he implores him to tell the world the story of what has happened. This scene is reproduced by a group of five actors who form a sort of chorus for the play and whom Horatio (Richard Gallagher, in an outstanding performance) has engaged to fulfill his dead lord’s request. Horatio plays his own part, but it is visibly hard on him. Afterwards, he decides he can bear the pain no longer, and before long he and the chorus are in the cemetery. When Hamlet (John Pasha) enters he’s crazier than ever, and not happy to see Horatio; Pasha, wild-eyed, terrifies those on stage as well as everyone in the audience.
Although the lines and characters are familiar to anyone who has read Hamlet, Horatio can be hard to follow. Elizabethan theater conventions are challenging anew, and the Shakespearean diction is as puzzling as the first time a viewer sees one of his plays. Hamlet is a part of the English-speaking world’s cultural consciousness, but Horatio doesn’t have that familiarity to aid comprehension. The lines are not totally reshuffled – a few scenes appear nearly whole, like the play-within-a-play The Murder of Gonzaga, the apparition of the king’s ghost, and Hamlet’s soliloquy. But in new contexts and on different lips, the words are utterly changed in meaning.
This is exciting, but challenging. Shakespeare scholars and anyone who enjoys parsing difficult plays should plan to attend at least twice in order get the most from the experience that is Horatio. Others who don’t have such interest or patience for a production that doesn’t reveal everything upon first viewing will be frustrated. Assante’s bold experiment with the hallowed Hamlet will linger in the mind long after its much less bloody conclusion.