This may well be the quickest Hamlet you’ll ever see.
Clocking in at under two hours, the Public Theater Mobile Unit’s charged production of Shakespeare’s great tragedy, directed by Patricia McGregor, might also be one of the most relevant.
There are, in a sense, two layers to the experience of watching this production. In one sense, yes, we are experiencing a lean and spare — but remarkably well-crafted — version of Shakespeare’s tragedy, with performances tailored to work with the production’s quickened pace. Chukwudi Iwuji delivers a stellar, complex Hamlet, one that expertly teeters on the brink of obsession and insanity. He flirts with the insane, but never so much as to lose the audience completely. If the character’s all-out insanity is missed, never fear: Kristolyn Lloyd, as Ophelia, brings it in full, shifting from a sharp, mischievous, Ophelia to one so insane as to appear possessed. The development of a relationship between the two is somewhat hindered by the speed of the production, but their individual performances make up for it. Orlagh Cassidy, as Gertrude, provides one of the most intense scenes in her argument with Hamlet following Polonius’s murder. Timothy D. Stickney’s Claudius is refreshingly less villainous than other performances I’ve seen, heightening the already complex morality of the whole bloody affair. Daniel Pearce, as Polonius, sprinkles in a welcome Monty Python wit, and the rest of the ensemble is uniformly superb.
That’s the first layer, the “normal” layer, where we are watching a strong ensemble do justice to one of our greatest plays. In this production, though, it is impossible not to view the second layer — that is, that the production’s intended audience, in addition to regular theatergoers, includes stops at social service organizations, shelters, community centers, and, perhaps most notably, prisons, including both the male and female sectors of Riker’s Island. That bit of background is impossible to ignore, as it is reinforced to the audience repeatedly.
As they walk into the theater, audiences are greeted by several blown-up black-and-white photographs hung behind the seating, with photos of the ensemble performing the play at many of their eighteen tour stops. Bleachers are set up in a rectangle around the stage. From my seat, the entire play was performed with the backdrop of a cast selfie, taken by one of the ensemble members from the front seat of their tour bus.
If the photos (plus an explanation of the tour in the program) aren’t enough, the production actually starts with the Public’s Director of Special Artistic Programs Stephanie Ybarra coming onstage and giving a run-down of the Mobile Unit program, complete with testimonials from tour audience members (one Riker’s inmate accurately declares the production as “lit!”). All of this creates a certain baggage when experiencing the performance, baggage that makes lines like “Denmark’s a prison” and “Guilty creatures sitting at a play” resonate in new ways, like when one listens to Johnny Cash sing “Folsom Prison Blues” on his At Folsom Prison live album. What the added context does is cast a spotlight on the timelessness of the play’s moral questions, making the themes of revenge and anger feel more relevant than ever before.
Going back to what we see onstage, McGregor’s direction plays into this modern day morality. While the production is filled throughout with choices that resonate with the racial landscape in America (beginning with a ghostly King Hamlet who dresses like Malcolm X), the clearest and boldest choice comes in the play’s final moments.
Hamlet’s climax, one of the Bard’s most spectacularly gory creations, is here presented with an added twist: Horatio (Jeffrey Omura) stands on the sidelines, recording the violence on his iPhone. In keeping with the production’s peppy pace, the final killings occur so quickly that it becomes difficult to keep track of who has slain whom — Gertrude drinks poisoned wine as Hamlet is sliced by Laertes’s poison dagger. Too many things happen at once. It’s the only moment when McGregor’s direction (up until then crystal-clear) obscures the action onstage, making the event blurry, almost confusing. It is a purposeful move. As Hamlet delivers his final lines to Horatio, “Thou livest; report me and my cause aright to the unsatisfied…Tell my story,” he speaks into the back of an iPhone. The recording becomes his only hope for truth, that the footage on it might reveal what has really occurred there and prove his own moral innocence.
We hope that next month, the message will be less relevant, and the simple act of an iPhone recording a killing will feel less immediate. This month, though, like too many before it, the message is loud and clear.