It wasn't until the crazy Ophelia came on singing "Anything Goes" that I wavered in my approval of what the Arden Theater Company has done to Hamlet. By that time, I was ready for just about anything that the tabloid production in St. Stephen's Alley might throw at me. I really have nothing against pop interpolations in Shakespeare provided they say to a contemporary audience what the playwright himself might have written if he were around now. And Ophelia's mad scene is admittedly one of the more impossibly dippy sequences ever written straight by anyone. But does Cole Porter help? I think not.
No matter. Artistic director Aaron Posner has worked over the play with the Arden's characteristic youthful in-your-face spirit, and anyone who knows this masterpiece at all is going to come away mad at something Posner has done. On the other hand, the youngish public that the Arden has discovered in this heavily middle-aged city is not likely to be all that familiar with the play and, consequently, would be blissfully open to whatever turns them on.
My guess is that this severely trimmed, anti-illusionist, unrhetorical Hamlet will convey more of Shakespeare to that public than the Royal Shakespeare Company can at its best. I'm not altogether happy with that, but I'm prepared to recognize that intelligible Shakespeare - and by that I mean culturally intelligible - is better.
So I suggest we allow ourselves to be stimulated by the displacement of soliloquies. I think we should enjoy the surprise we get when Ophelia (Suzanne O'Donnell) rises from her grave to gaze tragically at her brother and her boyfriend fighting like animals. And I believe there is a valid idea for our time in the suggestion that the ghost that drives Hamlet on to avenge his father's murder is a figment of his fevered brain - one of those bad dreams he talks about having. The play is performed in modern dress. The young people could be part of the weekend crowd on South Street. Their elders look like parents. But Posner is not trying to make them all seem "real" to us, just natural. Indeed, the method of staging has a Brechtian way of calling attention to itself as performance. All the actors are always in view, seated on the edge of the action when they aren't in it.
I was especially impressed by the brio of Christopher Mullen (Laertes and others) and Adam Nelson (Horatio and others). Each has a presence.
Of course, the Danish court looks underpopulated and Fortinbras has disappeared. He usually does when the crunch is on. The Hamlet is Kevin Cristaldi. At the moment, his chief virtue is the ability to be clear about what is going on in the tormented prince's head. With time, I'm sure Cristaldi will find a sharper profile for his Hamlet.
The cast numbers only seven. They play 17 roles. The practice encourages the development of versatility, which is something that doesn't happen in films and television.
The more experienced H. Michael Walls gives a demonstration of range in switching from a Polonius without senile flourishes to a colorful Gravedigger, from Player King to Osric. As Gertrude, Hayden Saunier gets roughed up by Hamlet in the closet scene and still keeps her poise.
Written by William Shakespeare; directed by Aaron Posner; set design by Daniel Jackson; costumes by Michele Osherow; lighting by Ellen M. Owens; original music by Evan Solot; sound by Michael Green. Presented by the Arden Theater Company at St. Stephen's Alley. Ends March 3.
Claudius/Player - Jack Coulter
Hamlet - Kevin Cristaldi
Laertes/Rosencrantz/Player Poisoner - Christopher Mullen
Horatio/Guildenstern/Lead Player - Adam Nelson
Ophelia/Player Queen - Suzanne O'Donnell
Gertrude/Player - Hayden Saunier
Polonius/Player King/Gravedigger/Osric - H. Michael Walls