‘Hamlet’: Less Matter With More Art

MelissaLeeHamletWeb“Hamlet” is a huge play. Its reputation looms large over Western theatre, regarded as one of the best plays from one of the best playwrights. Even its smallest lines have embedded themselves into our culture. In fact, this play is so well-regarded, so well-known, that it might seem like an unusual choice for an undergrad director. You’re more likely to bore or frustrate people with “Hamlet” than entertain or even move them.

Yes, this play is an ambitious choice – but this is a director with a lot of ambition. Victor Vazquez is finishing his undergraduate career with two exemplary productions under his belt. Last year’s “Mnemonic,” an experimental Théâtre de Complicité piece, was not just a fantastic undergrad workshop, but a fantastic production, period.

Vazquez, undoubtedly aware of the hazards of staging “Hamlet,” chose to dally with the great Dane for his Honors in Directing. With a great cast and design team backing him up, he grappled with this heavyweight and ended up on top.

Kristina Teves plays Hamlet with conviction and soul. Her voice is hoarse, something which seems like both a natural quality and the result of night after night of speech-making. Although the rasps in her voice make her diction slightly muddled, they ultimately flesh out the character further. Sure, Hamlet is strong and determined, but he’s also anxious and fallible, prone to pacing halls and waxing poetic.

Truthfully, this production could have used a little less rambling. The script was edited extensively – typical practice for producing Shakespeare, who tends to have bits of chaff scattered amongst his golden wheat prose – but it still tended to drag in parts.

You could find evidence of this scrawled on the chalkboard outside the door, which politely informed that the first half was 90 minutes, which would be followed by a half-hour second half.

And yet! “Hamlet”  is such an earnest production that you rarely notice the long run-time. The whole cast performs well, hitting a wide range of emotion from cheeky to tender, haunted to cocksure. The relationships are well-established; even the sibling bond between Laertes and Ophelia, as played by  Chris Klopatek and Madeline Oberto, is convincing.

Rob Salas, an MFA in Directing himself, provided some comic relief in his interpretation of Polonius. Here, he’s a concerned dad, sarcastic lawyer and ill-advised advisor; I’ve rarely seen such an empathetic version of that character.

The most compelling scene occurs near the end of the first half, where Hamlet accidentally stabs Polonius through the curtain, and both he and his mother have to grapple with guilt, bereavement, pride and love. While Hamlet struggles through his own inner conflict, he ultimately gains the upper hand over Queen Gertrude (played by Leah Dutchin, MFA in Acting), who breaks down before our eyes.

In the second half, the stage gradually becomes littered with flowers, dirt and bodies. Rather than disrupting the space, these layers of objects, tokens of mortality, underlined the impending disaster of the final scene.

The final scene of “Hamlet” is one that’s been parodied so many times –  the ultimate Shakespearean death scene, with almost every major character dropping dead –  it’s almost hard to do it justice. Vazquez’s solution was to have Horatio, played with brilliant verbosity and measured calm by Soren Santos, say the stage directions of the death scene out loud.

In fact, the play is framed by Horatio, who aims to “truly deliver” the tragic tale to the best of his abilities. Even though he seems like the most reliable of any of the characters, the play brings up questions of reliability and account-giving – in “Hamlet,” watching a scene unfold before your eyes might not constitute accurate belief.

Amongst all this fluidity, there remains one thing that you can be sure of: Victor Vazquez will reach far greater heights than Claudius, and by far nobler means.