Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Albuquerque/Santa Fe

The New Mexico Shakespeare Project
Review by Dean Yannias

Also see Dean's recent review of The Philadelphia Story and Rob's review of Traveling with Angels

The Cast (Martin Andrews, front right)
Photo by Somah Haaland
One of the best examples of a writer making something universal out of something particular is Shakespeare and his Hamlet. The specifics of the plot apply to no one on earth, and yet the play contains some of the most trenchant and beautiful statements of the human condition ever written.

First of all, there is a prince whose father has died and whose ascendency to the throne has been usurped by his uncle. Secondly, the prince's mother marries the uncle within two months of her husband's death. Thirdly, the mystery of how the father died is revealed by a ghost. Preposterous, and yet the perfect setup for Shakespeare to write some of the best poetry in the English language.

The problem with staging Hamlet, of course, is that it is so familiar. For example, almost everybody knows, going into the theater, that Claudius killed the king. You forget that the first half of the play is basically a murder mystery: Did somebody kill Hamlet's father, or was he bitten by a snake in the garden, as was reported? Hamlet himself isn't certain how his father died until about halfway through the play. And because we already know how it ends, we forget that the second half of the play is not just a tale of revenge, but a suspense story as well: Will Hamlet manage to kill Claudius before Claudius kills Hamlet?

People therefore think: "Do I really need to see another Hamlet? I already know what happens." So, to get an audience to come, you can make the play seem more hip by playing with the time and place of the action, setting it in the modern corporate world, for example, or in some future nowhere. Sometimes this works, sometimes not, but the play usually survives anything that directors throw at it because the language is so gorgeous.

What I appreciated about the recent New Mexico Shakespeare Project production, directed by Billy Trabaudo, is that it realized that the reason the play is so great is its language. There was no avant-garde or retro tinkering with the setting, no Regietheater annoyances. An almost bare stage, contemporary clothes. All of the emphasis was on the words themselves and the actors who spoke them.

It seemed as if almost every word had been mulled over by the cast and creative team. Let me give you an example. When their Hamlet said "To be or not to be," he held up his dagger when he said "to be" and when he said "not to be" he held up the notebook in which he had been scribbling his thoughts. Now, at first this sounds like a mistake. Shouldn't it be the dagger—the bare bodkin—that he picks up when he says "not to be?" This inversion of our expectation added so much to the soliloquy, because we realized that it's not only about continuing to live versus committing suicide. For Hamlet, "being" means not just existing, but taking action; and "not being" is when the pale cast of thought causes enterprises of great pitch and moment to turn their currents awry and lose the name of action. (This speech might be the first existentialist text ever written.)

This Hamlet worked so well because the focus was on the words, and because Billy managed to get together some of the actors in Albuquerque who speak those words best. Martin Andrews (Hamlet) had the amazing ability to make 400-year-old dialogue sound like natural speech, not like oratory. His emotions were palpable but not overplayed. I will probably never see a better performance of Hamlet up close in my lifetime, but it wasn't totally flawless: waving his dagger up over his head and running his hands over his shaved head occurred a little too frequently for my taste.

Charles Fisher, who has the advantage of hailing from England, was a perfect Claudius, making him not simply a rank villain but a conflicted, almost self-despising character. I could listen to his plummy diction and orotund vowels all night. Lee Kitts did a fine job as Gertrude, who is handled so roughly by Hamlet. But what I think is the most poignant line in the whole play ("O Hamlet, thou has cleft my heart in twain") didn't get the emphasis it deserves.

John Wylie seemed an odd choice for Polonius, since I think of him in Sam Shepard type roles, but he pulled it off, playing it like a presidential advisor. Rhiannon Frazier did very well by Ophelia, a role I always have trouble with. Sensible girl suddenly goes crazy. Sure, she's got a couple reasons (she loves Hamlet but he rejects her and kills her father) but I have always found Ophelia's mad scene the least convincing part of the play. Among the supporting players, Brian Haney, Pip Lustgarten, and Julian Singer-Corbin stood out as good Shakespeareans.

There were a couple bits of staging that were sub-par. The "comedy" at the beginning of the gravedigger scene was too forced (although the gravedigger-Hamlet conversation was wittily done), and the swordfight was so perfunctory as to be simply a blur. Where did Laertes cut Hamlet with the poisoned sword, and where did Hamlet strike Laertes with the same sword? I missed it all.

These quibbles aside, this was an outstanding Hamlet. The New Mexico Shakespeare Project is just getting off the ground, and if this is an indication of the quality we can expect from them, they deserve the support of all theatergoers in the Albuquerque and Santa Fe areas.

As to why they only did one performance in Albuquerque and two in Santa Fe, I overheard someone ask Martin Andrews that question a couple weeks ago. His answer: "Why do Buddhist monks spend so much time and effort creating a beautiful mandala and then destroy it after one ceremony?" Great answer, but it's still a shame that so few people got to see this excellent show. Here's hoping it gets revived with much of the same cast. It's the kind of production that can turn Shakespeare-phobes into Shakespeare-philes.

Hamlet by William Shakespeare, directed by Billy Trabaudo, was presented by The New Mexico Shakespeare Project on Friday, February 19, 2016, at the North Fourth Arts Center in Albuquerque and on February 20 and 21 at St. John's College in Santa Fe.

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