Thursday, May 4, 2017

REVIEWS: Madness and Civilization: WhyNot Theatre Delivers a Compelling Prince Hamlet

It's WHYNOT Theatre's 10th anniversary and artistic director Ravi Jain decided to revisit HAMLET, the first show the company ever did.

It's was a wonderful choice. Jain's intellectual rigor, bold choices and risk-taking really shine in this imperfect, but fascinating production.

One of Jain's bold choices is the casting.  Most of the company are female. Jeff Ho takes the role of Ophelia - so we have a straight couple with the gender roles reversed - or do we?  All the women playing men are dressed in haberdashery. The only obviously female character on the stage is Karen Robinson, who plays Gertrude with great warmth and lush sensuality.

Jain's production effectively stands "received practices" on its anachronistic head. Nice going!

HAMLET is a tough play for a modern audience. In Shakespeare's time most spectators would have believed in ghosts,in an after-life,in God, in Hell and Heaven. For a cross-cultural, globe-trotting audience more likely to regard religion from an anthropological perspective, the play can demand a little more suspension of disbelief than it can muster.

Jain and his cast surmount this difficulty with elan.  When Hamlet's father's ghost appears on the ramparts, the scene seems to begin in reality with the guards,then shifts to Hamlet's bed as he tosses and turns alone and asleep. Did Hamlet dream his late father's visitation?  Is the dream prescient -or just a product of his disturbed imagination? Brilliant.

The Danish court, wonderfully designed by Lorenzo Savoini,is a hall of mirrors illuminated by gilt chandeliers suspended above a parquet platform. There's a visual nod to Versailles, but also to self-reflexive modernity, where we all watch ourselves and each other constantly on social media. The mirrors face the audience,implicating the spectators in the spectacle.  Piles of dirt surround the stage and as the characters are subsumed by their weaknesses and mortality; despair (Ophelia),rage (Laertes), carnality (Claudius and Gertrude)they become covered in dirt.

I don't think I've ever seen a better or more convincing Claudius and Gertrude.  In his pale, tight suit, silver hair just slightly too long, Rick Roberts epitomizes a certain kind of aging sleazebag.
I believed he would have killed his own brother in order to sleep with his sister-in-law.

His delivery of the "your father lost a father" speech was perfect: a patina of parental concern and reason coating a core of disgust and annoyance. When he prays, it's to the looking-glass, a moment less with the Almighty and more with the reflection of his own soul: a mirror held up to Nature indeed.

Maria Vancratsis is an outstanding Polonius, deftly drawing a meddlesome,self-important courtier and helicopter parent. The Stratford veteran's delivery was beautiful.

Horatio is played by Dawn Jani Birley. She uses sign language to communicate.  A skilled and compelling performer,the statuesque artist commands the stage.  Her Horatio occupies a parallel place to the audience, also seen but not heard, silent witness to all of the action.

Christine Horne, rail thin, her ghost-like,luminous pallor accentuated by an all-black wardrobe plays Hamlet as depressed, and so grief-stricken by the death of her father as to be teetering on the edge of insanity. Horne looks like she hasn't had a shower in a week.

Her scenes with Horatio and Gertrude are nuanced and credible. Her relationship with Ophelia is also well-drawn. She and Ho make us feel the loss of their love through the intrusions of meddlesome parents. Her relationship with Horatio is a total bro-mance, showcasing her mastery of Hamlet's wit. The scene with Hamlet, Horatio, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern is uproarious.

The night I saw her, Horne seemed less confident with the self-reflective soliloquies. One of the few flaws with the production is the company's uneven ability to deliver the text with clarity and precision.

Jain privileges the emotional underpinnings of the text over its gorgeous language. He has made a lot of cuts, moving things around in a way that enhances the psycho-drama and downplays both the supernatural elements of the play and the physical violence. No swords are ever drawn,though Khadijah Roberts-Abdullah's Laertes evinces a great and chilling moment of physical violence in the scene before the duel.

At the end of the tragedy, when the bodies are piled on the stage, Horatio is left with us, the dead, and the dirt to which we all return. Her grief is palpable. Hamlet's conclusion,like our own is inescapable and final.

Jain and company made all tickets "pay what you can afford" starting at $5.00 so money was no excuse not to see this fine and affecting contemporary production of what is arguably the greatest play in the English language.

I would like to apologize for putting this up so late. This is the second show I've seen and not had an opportunity to write about until after the fact.  The other was the wonderful LITTLE PRETTY and THE EXCEPTIONAL at The Factory Theatre.

I want the artists I've seen, but not covered to know I appreciate you sharing your talent.  The city is a richer, more vibrant place because of you.

WhyNot Theatre in association with Soulpepper present Prince Hamlet ran  until April 29th at The Franco Boni Theatre, The Theatre Centre.

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