To be or not to be?” is the single most identifiable line from William Shakespeare’s tragedy “Hamlet, Prince of Denmark.” It is remarkable, however, just how much “Hamlet” is with us, albeit in bits and pieces, in daily life. It only takes a reading or viewing of “Hamlet” – as is currently doable thanks to the New Muses Theater Company – to realize just how much we experience “Hamlet” as part of our cultural fabric.
Although most are unaware of it, many of the phrases that are part of our language come from this one play. Off the top of my head I can make a random list: Every dog had his day; the undiscovered country; what dreams may come; what a piece of work is man; something is rotten in the state of Denmark; me thinks she doth protest too much; to thine own self be true; neither a borrower nor lender be; murder most foul (a favorite phrase of the Agatha Christie character Hercule Poirot); there are more things in heaven and earth than dreamt of in your philosophy; there’s a method in his madness; this mortal coil; you have to be cruel to be kind.
References to “Hamlet” are constantly cropping up for those with ears to hear. In the last few days, I read a short story on the death of King Arthur called “Thus Cracks a Noble Heart.” The title is drawn from Horatio’s commentary on the death of “Hamlet.”
Last weekend, I attended a performance of New Muses’ production of “Hamlet” and found myself zeroing in on familiar phrases, lines that are a vital part of the linguistic kit of proverbs, lore and sayings that we inherit when we dwell within the English language family. Hamlet is the font of so much of the material of our linguistic lives.
Numbers wise, the current season is a big one for Tacoma’s community theaters. Tacoma Little Theater celebrates its 100th season, Lakewood Playhouse its 80th; Tacoma Musical Playhouse has hit 25; and the New Muses Theater Company has reached its 10th season.
“Hamlet” was a part of New Muses’ first season and Niclas Olson, the theater company’s founder and managing artistic director, vowed to do the play again if the company survived 10 seasons. They have reached the mark, and here we are with the new production of the play that everyone thinks they know. Shakespeare plays, however, are endlessly malleable and adaptable and every new production of one of his plays is its own thing.
Hamlet is the son of a king who is murdered by his brother. The brother, Claudius, takes both his brother’s throne and his wife. The ghost of the murdered king returns and bids Hamlet take vengeance on his behalf.
The new production is a version of “Hamlet” adapted and directed by Olson – he also plays the starring role. Almost like a film editor, Olson used a deft scalpel in his shaping of the script. He leaves extraneous material on the cutting room floor in the interests of coming up with a show that is streamlined and will flow swiftly along to keep the audience engaged. With this production, Olson has crafted something cinematic – indeed this work comes across as film noir. The actors are mostly in dark costumes; the lighting is moody and enhanced with the use of fog and smoke. The drama flows through a neat series of short scenes that are spaced apart with segments of cool jazz by the likes of Miles Davis. Longer, key scenes are evenly placed along the trajectory. A significant move of the adaptation is that the “to be or not to be” speech is moved from the “nunnery scene” to a scene in which Hamlet has returned from a brief exile after he killed Polonius, the King’s advisor.
Ten years ago, New Muses set “Hamlet” in a gritty world and Olson played the character as vengeful and unhinged. Now older, Olson professes to have recognized the melancholy and loneliness of Hamlet, a man with an unclear future whose dreams have been stilted and who is surrounded by public scrutiny.
“Hamlet waits for the perfect moment to act, but wonders if that moment has passed him by,” writes Olson. “His world has become ornate, royal and confining.” Hamlet is in a prison fashioned by his own mind. “This is a magical text. I could play Hamlet another hundred times and still never be satisfied.”
In this version of “Hamlet,” Olson portrays the figure as brooding, thoughtful and ruminating. He’ll stand in the semi dark, having a sip from his pocket flask and forming his thoughts as he nurses a cigarette. It is like viewing a fire that is fuming rather than burning. Yet the slightest breeze causes the coals to glow and sparks to fly. Hamlet looks dark, but the flames are volatile, apt to flare up at any moment, at the slightest provocation.
Olson is backed up by a trusty troupe of actors who have thrown themselves into this complex story of intra and inter-family strife. Ophelia, Hamlet’s love interest, is played by the suave and silky Cassie Jo Fastabend (the star of last season’s production of “Lysistrata”). Fastabend’s Ophelia is cherubic and vivacious.
Hamlet’s mother, Queen Gertrude, is played by Dayna Childs, who played the same character in a Lakewood Playhouse production of Tom Stoppard’s esoteric “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead.” Poised and regal one moment and alarmed and grief stricken the next, Gertrude runs an emotional gamut. It was Childs that I watched during the final dual in which pretty much everyone goes down (the hallmark of a tragedy). Gertrude unwittingly drinks a cup of poison meant for Hamlet. She stands back in the shadows (the lighting in the play is fantastic) and it slowly dawns on her something is terribly wrong. Meanwhile, Hamlet and Laertes are at each other with swords.
In a gender switcheroo – common to productions of Shakespeare plays – Polonius, the King’s advisor, is played by Angela Parisotto. With a background in clowning, comedy and dramatic roles, Parisotto brings a number of gifts to bear in her performance. She makes full use of fingers, hands and expressive body language to flesh out her fluency in Shakespearian speech. Parisotto also gets to use her clowning skills as the grave digger who introduces Hamlet to the iconic skull of Yorick, the court fool that he knew as a boy.
Mason Quinn, a brilliant actor who has made his presence felt in a number of our local stages of late, has the size, the look and the fluency to bring a Shakespearian character to life. In this production, he plays Hamlet’s friend Horatio, the one character who never loses his bearings and the one that survives the carnage of the outcome. He is the man who lives to tell the tale.
Xander Layden is fantastic as Laertes, the son of Polonius and brother of Ophelia. Both brash and noble, the good-natured Laertes leaves home for France only to return in grief and fury over the loss of his father and sister. The false King Claudius is able to turn Laertes’ thirst for revenge into a plot to kill Hamlet. Layden also tackles the role of Guildenstern with panache.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, the hippie friends of Hamlet’s youth, are called in by the King and Queen to spy on their childhood friend. Rosencrantz is played by Victoria Ashley, who is new to the local stage. An import from Mississippi, Ashley was striking and brilliant as Gillian Holroyd in Tacoma Little Theater’s “Bell, Book and Candle” last fall. She is equally bewitching in “Hamlet.” Her large, expressive eyes and dexterity with language are mesmerizing.
Juan Aleman II takes on the role of Claudius, Hamlet’s uncle who murdered Hamlet’s father and married his mother in order to claim the throne of Denmark for his own. Aleman gives Claudius a peculiar, herky-jerky delivery that somehow works as a revelation of the plodding machinations of the scheming mind of the counterfeit king.
There is much to love about the ways in which this production brings the Shakespeare classic to life. Especially effective was the use of a dark, gauzy backdrop that could be lit to reveal the appearance of specters and ghosts, as well as scenes illustrated by the narration of other characters (as in Queen Gertrude’s telling of the death of Ophelia.)
A bit of political commentary was made by having Claudius and Hamlet start off with flag lapel pins in mimicry of the flag pins that have become an obligatory part of the costume of contemporary political types. The illegitimate king Claudius also wears an overly long, red tie (with polka dots), which has become a part of the Donald Trump caricature. In courtly arrangements, Queen Gertrude stands as an accoutrement to usurped power. She is made into a prop, like a trophy wife, as she stands beside the throne of the seated king. Through her marriage to the murderer of her husband, Gertrude has to stand beside Claudius as an accessory – in both the fashion and the criminal sense.
New Muses is known for bringing classic theatrical material to Tacoma audiences. With “Hamlet,” the scrappy theatrical company has done a magnificent job of showing how Shakespeare’s masterpiece remains timeless. If New Muses makes “Hamlet” a marker of every 10 seasons of existence, then we have to hope that they stick around for another decade so that we can see what else Hamlet has to reveal.
New Muses’ “Hamlet” runs through Jan. 27. For ticketing, scheduling and other information, visit www.newmuses.com.