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Duke Performances is opening Duke University's newest performance hall with a superlative presentation by the Bedlam Theatre Company of New York, which is currently in residence with two major productions: George Bernard Shaw's Saint Joan and William Shakespeare's Hamlet.
The Rubenstein Arts Center is a brand-new multi-media building allocating 70,000 square feet to a medley of different arts, as well as giving a new location to the campus radio station. The Ruby's major performance hall is the Heyden Studio Theater, a highly adaptable black box that offers adjustable seating, multilevel performance and viewing, and some of the most comfortable chairs we have experienced. This brand new facility was put to its maximum use in Hamlet by a band of players that uses a very distinctive and imaginative way of presenting a work. It is one of the most unique and accessible ways we have ever witnessed of presenting a classic piece, specifically a work of Shakespeare. The entire play — all five acts — with only a smidgen of cutting at all, is presented by a scant four actors, using a bare minimum of set, props, and costumes, and zero make-up. This mode of presentation concentrates the viewer's attention on the words of the playwright, while offering some of the most creative and attention-keeping staging to come along in quite some time.
Interestingly enough, something very much akin to this concept of presentation was attempted here in the Triangle some years ago. Using the moniker ACTER, and adopting the mode of four actors per play, this idea was floated at UNC, but after one initial performance, the idea seemed to drop. But fortunately what cannot survive in the hinterland may well flourish in the Big Apple. Bedlam was created in 2012, and has been receiving accolades and awards ever since.
Each actor has been assigned one major role and several of the minor roles, thus giving us very concrete pictures of the principals while allowing the performers to improvise, in this case most creatively, many of the minor ones. In this performance directed by Eric Tucker, Hamlet is played by Aubie Merrylees; Claudius by Sam Massaro; Gertrude and Ophelia by Aundria Brown; and Kahlil Garcia takes on Laertes and Polonius, as well as Hamlet's friend, Horatio.
Now, those students of Shakespeare in general, and Hamlet in particular, will notice an immediate conundrum: there are scenes within the play where two of an actor's characters — for example, Polonius and his son, Laertes — appear in the same scene, oftentimes speaking one to the other. Fear not, they've got that covered, and most imaginatively, too. Very early in Act I, we find Laertes bidding farewell to his sister, Ophelia, when Polonius enters and chides his son to hurry, the ship is sailing. Garcia gives Laertes no accent at all; his Polonius speaks in a clipped English accent. To further distinguish the two, Polonius wears glasses; his son does not. So a swift removal of the glasses and accent makes Polonius Laertes, and vice versa. The result is a split-second character change and a smooth dialogue between father and son, even to the point that Ophelia, who converses with both, at one point removed Polonius' glasses so she could speak to her brother. It was all masterfully done.
Let it be known that this is a full-length Shakespearean show, and these interactions and conversations must take place naturally and, often, quickly. It was apparent to this viewer that each actor knew the entire script by heart, all of it, not just his or her own part. This was essential, for often passages were spoken simultaneously by two or more actors in order to underline a passage.
It is easier to populate a play using only four actors than you might at first imagine. Take the opening sequence of guards in the keep at Elsinore. Using all three levels of Heyden Studio, and no light whatsoever except the flashlight each actor carries with him, we are made to believe there are many soldiers about, conversing during the changing of the guard. In a few moments, after the guards speak of him, the elder Hamlet appears. His ghost emerges onto the set through a sheer scrim, with a bright light behind him. The effect is most ghost-like. But the quick among the viewers will have noticed this scrim well before the arrival of the king. In the absolute darkness of Heyden, splashed across the scrim in black-light letters is the word ELSINORE. In the sequence in the dark of Hamlet seeking out and finding his father, you could well imagine that there were many men swarming over the keep in an effort to save their prince from what may very well be a malevolent spirit.
These are only a quick few examples of the innovative and thoroughly captivating creativity that has gone into this production. I can say without reservation that this was the most enjoyable presentation of Hamlet I have ever seen, and that includes quite a number of shows. The dialogue is understandable; these characters are sharp and easily distinguished; the action is fast and furious; and the entire three-plus hours that it took to present this work went by in a flash. I was truly sorry to see it end. If you are a fan of Shakespeare, this production is steeped in the words of the author, and you will enjoy it thoroughly. If you are new to the Bard, then this show is a most accessible and understandable one, and one of the best introductions to the classics I might suggest.
Hamlet runs in rolling repertory with Saint Joan through Sunday, February 25 at the Rubenstein Arts Center, located on the Duke campus at the corner of Anderson Street and Campus Drive. To accommodate the length of these works, each show begins at 7:00 pm. For more information on dates and times, please view the sidebar.