Two Be, or Not Two Be

Now playing at HERE Arts Center in Soho, The One Man (two man (not quite)) Hamlet is a fascinating journey through one actor’s attempt to stage Hamlet solo — well, not quite solo, as the title implies. As written and performed by the charismatic Kevin Brewer and tightly directed by Ross Williams, this multilayered inaugural production from the New York Shakespeare Exchange mixes Shakespeare’s poetry with contemporary language. It's is a clever, entertaining, and unique spin on William Shakespeare’s magnum opus — but don’t go expecting the Bard’s tragedy intact or even abridged. The evening begins as the traditional red curtain parts. A second curtain appears, covering a proscenium-encased widescreen TV. Once that curtain parts, the word “PLAY” appears onscreen and the show begins. As bells chime, a figure materializes on the monitor. It is “V” (the video version of Brewer), playing the guard Barnardo. “Who’s there?” he shouts, as “K” (the real-life Brewer), playing Horatio, enters the stage for the opening scene of Hamlet..

But as in the Shakespeare play, something’s rotten in this state of Denmark as well. As the action progresses through a humorous sequence of a double-faced King Claudius/Queen Gertrude brought hilariously to life by “V,” with “K” sulking admirably as the melancholy Prince, things go awry. “K” is dropping his lines and missing cues. Soon the two “actors” have let go of the façade of recreating Hamlet and begin dissecting exactly why “K” can’t get through the show without making mistakes.

In an effort to pinpoint the problem, “K” and “V” do a riotous speed-through of the opening scenes that is one of the highlights of this production. But the main charms of One Man Hamlet lie in the interaction between the flesh-and-blood “K” and his video counterpart “V,” which brings to the forefront not only the duality of Hamlet’s character, but also, for that matter, all human beings.

Brewer does an outstanding job of creating two distinct personalities in “K,” the insecure lead actor, and “V,” the cheerleading supporting player. Of course, you are led to believe they are two different entities, but the reality is that they are two sides of the same coin: the id and ego of Mr. Brewer himself, with some super ego thrown in too for good measure. It is a credit to both the performer and director that the interaction between “K” and “V” seems truly organic. This is a nimble production that has dexterously combined live and filmed performances into a cohesive whole.

There is a lot of humor in The One Man (two man (not quite)) Hamlet and the audience I attended with laughed a lot, especially when the befuddled “K” addressed the audience directly, even though he did not truly believe we were there. (See the show for what that means exactly.) “V” also had many funny bits, including the play-within-the-play, where he utilized a hand puppet to great comic effect, and his spot-on characterization of a hipster-esque Rosencrantz.

Precisely and fluidly choreographed, One Man Hamlet is an ingenious production that only falters in the last 20 minutes. While everything up to that point has the freewheeling, manic energy of a comedy, the final quarter of the 80-minute show changes gears abruptly to tragedy. “K” begins exploring his fear of failure as an actor and his desire to be not only good in this role, but good — period. These series of (mostly) monologues may correlate directly to Hamlet’s own inner turmoil in the play that bears his name, but they turn One Man Hamlet from an inventive work exploring a singular production of Hamlet into a pop psychology piece about the travails of the acting profession. The tone changes from mirthful and merry to maudlin and morose. “Nothing and no one is perfect,” asserts the video doppelgänger to his real-life counterpart. Future versions of this show might consider cutting down this overly long section. As Queen Gertrude retorts to the loquacious Polonius in the original Hamlet: “More matter with less art.”

Regardless, The One Man (two man (not quite)) Hamlet is a terrific show that offers a fresh take on the Shakespeare classic and an inside look at the mindset of an actor struggling to break through — both personally and professionally. For Shakespeare and Hamletfans of all stripes, it's highly recommended for its originality and humor. “Remember me,” “K” says at the lights black out. I’ll surely remember The One Man (two man (not quite)) Hamlet.

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