Shakespeare was not meant to be read–it was meant to be performed. The fledgling Wise Fool Shakespeare company took a sophomore English assignment and presented it as the compelling drama it was meant to be. Their premier performance, Hamlet, makes the language of Shakespeare more accessible to audiences and provides a unique opportunity to see the story come to life.
The cast expresses the story well. Many of the scenes are highly animated, complementing the dialogue. In fact, the minor characters carry the show with high spirited and energetic performances until Hamlet’s madness sets in and steals the show. Upon the entrance of the major players, Eamon Hill’s Polonius commands the stage. His powerful voice and smooth delivery convey his lines as if they were casual conversation used in everyday life. Watching Hill play against John Pokrzywinsi’s mad prince of Denmark–arguably the most animated and energetic of the entire cast–made the first half of the show especially entertaining.
Unfortunately, the language does drag in places. Especially in long monologues delivered by actors standing in place, it is easy to lose track of the story. There were also a few moments when the lines were delivered too quickly to be understood. While it is difficult to decide which material needs to be cut, and director Pokrzywinksi made some reasonable choices, there were several scenes ran slightly longer than necessary. A long monologue delivered by one of the players about the death of Priam is probably only of interests to scholars of Virgil’s Aeneid, and cutting it would have shaved some time off of the two-hour, forty-five minute performance.
Another challenge for a director of a 400 year-old play is finding new ideas to bring to the script to capture interest. Costumes, props and some unusual anachronisms add spice to Wise Fool’s Hamlet. As the play opens, the castle guardsmen are dressed in what appear to be Second World War-era Russian military coats and hats–and carrying swords. While it is not uncommon to perform Shakespeare in modern clothing–even Shakespeare’s actors dressed in contemporary Renaissance garb–the use of the occasional anachronistic prop gives a slight hint of the medieval world. This practice is somewhat inconsistent though, and more and more modern props appear later in the performance. However, small details, such as a bored Rosencrantz whipping out a phone and sending a text message during the players’ performance, make for amusing comic relief to an otherwise heavy play.
Coordination of contemporary clothing also provided an unusual flair to the show. Guardsmen were dressed as soldiers, the players used genuine Renaissance costumes, and the gravediggers wore jeans and flannel. The costumes for the major players lacked this flair, however. Most of Shakespeare’s characters are medieval aristocrats, and the costume design ended up with all the men in suits and all the women dressed in professional work attire. It would have been nice to see some differentiation.
Wise Fool’s Hamlet was a simple, low-budget production, but that’s what Shakespeare is. The enduring appeal of performing his scripts is that things like costuming and set design take a back seat to the language, and this production was aware of that. Nothing appears to overshadow the writing, and the cast has managed to vitalize an otherwise difficult and unforgiving script into a unique opportunity to see Shakespeare in three dimensions.
HAMLET. By William Shakespeare. Directed by John Pokrzywinksi for Wise Fool Shakespeare at the Scottish Rite Auditorium, 4 West Second Street, Duluth. With Julie Ahasay, Paul Brissett, Nathan Carlblom, Pat Carroll, Abby DeSanto, Eamon Hill, Rob Larson, Devin McKinnon, Carrie Mohn, Luke Moravec, Jason Page, John Pokrzywinski, Christa Schultz, Cheryl Skafte, and Zachary Stofer. The production runs Fridays-Sundays through March 20. Curtain time: 7:30 p.m. Sunday matinee at 2 p.m. Tickets are $15 and $12 for students. This review was based on the Sunday, March 6 performance.
Jake La Jeunesse is a Northern Michigan native who moved to Duluth two years ago. A veteran of the stage, he has worked on a number of theatrical productions running jobs from stage crew all the way up to directing and producing. He will soon hold an M.A. in English from the University of Minnesota Duluth. He has won several awards for playwriting.