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A CurtainUp Feature
Hamlet At Home

How do you winkle out the magic and the thought behind Hamlet? Scott Elliott, the Artistic Director of The New Group, set out to resolve the dilemma—if it is one—in Hamlet at Home, as part of their series of “Dark Nights at The New Group” (at Theater Row’s Acorn Theater).

This program, which seeks to create a forum for public conversation between artists and audience, typically coincides and complements a mainstage production. But, in this case, Elliott told the audience that the play is the thing here, since The New Group has no present plan underway to stage Shakespeare’s greatest family drama.

The program began informally, with Elliott sharing his own memories and impressions of Hamlet. He confided that, time and again, he has been “impressed but not touched by the work.” Though his his encounters with Hamlet on the page or stage have been more of a cerebral than heart-felt experience, he explained that during a recent re-reading of the work that he unexpectedly found it emotionally riveting. What he once felt as cliché, suddenly became an intimate and contemporary experience. And, thus, he decided that Hamlet would be good theatrical grist for a program.

The actors to enliven the December 11th only program were Lisa Emery, Mamie Gummer, Josh Hamilton, and Wallace Shawn. After introducing them, Elliott playfully probed the audience members on their Shakespearean acumen (“Raise your hand if you have NOT read Hamlet!”) and then told the tale in brief. With equal directness and charm, Elliott let the audience know that the program was an artistic “experiment.” Though the actors rehearsed their designated parts for the evening, the evening's format allowed them to refer to scripts for presenting excerpts.

The first part presented centered on Act 1, Scene 2, where King Claudius (Wallace Shawn) and Queen Gertrude (Lisa Emery) urge Hamlet (Josh Hamilton) to remain in Denmark rather than return to school in Wittenberg (“Let not thy mother lose her prayers, Hamlet./I pray thee stay with us, go not to Wittenberg.”). After the trio performed sitting on a couch at center stage, Elliott asked them to retry it moments later as a breakfast scene sitting around a table at stage left. The contrast was like night and day: the first being formal and forbidding; the second cozy and intimate.

Next up was the eerie Ghost Scene of Act 1, Scene 5, in which Hamlet encounters the Ghost (Wallace Shawn) of his father and is instructed to take revenge on his murder. Elliott illustrated, once again, how the same scene can be played out to very different effects. The first reading was at center stage; and the second at the stage’s lip. What became extremely evident in this piece was that the actors’s physical positioning onstage, and their physical distance from the audience creates a certain tone.

Of course, Hamlet’s to-be-or-not-to-be soliloquy was included as the centerpiece. The more emotionally-charged moments here belonged to Hamlet and Ophelia (Mamie Gummer) in the “Get thee to a nunnery!” episode of Act 3, Scene 1. Elliott suggested that the pair interpret it first in a traditional mode, and then give it a more gut-wrenching “break-up scene” quality. There was lots of heat sparkin’ on stage between Hamilton and Gummer.

The last sketch was Claudius’s confession scene (“O my offense is rank; it smells to heaven;”) of Act 3, Scene 3, where Hamlet stands poised to exact revenge on his uncle. Alas, Hamlet remains true to his nature, and tragically fails to take action here. Elliott, perhaps realizing that the audience doesn’t need to watch this spiritually-disturbing scene twice, wisely gave it a single go through.

The evening wrapped up with a question-and answer session between the artists and audience which mainly focused on the intimate quality of the readings. Those who attended the program got a welcome break from Shakespearean pageantry and a chance to experience Hamlet in terms of their own eyes, ears, heart and mind.

I found thr evening rewarding enough to recommend that you try to catch other planne dDark Nights. On the upcoming schedule some of (with tickets a suggested $20 donation): February 12, 2012, Adapting Brecht’s Baal (with Ethan Hawke and Jonathan Marc Sherman; April 1, 2012, Reflecting Rabe (David Rabe and others reflect on his career in an evening featuring readings from his plays and excerpts from his novels).
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