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Faction of Fools, the Commedia dell’Arte troupe honored at this year’s Helen Hayes Awards as outstanding emerging theater company, has an intriguing idea at the center of its new gloss on Shakespeare’s most psychologically overgrown play. What if instead of being too contemplative, too philosophical, too emo to carry out expediently his mission of vengeance, Prince Hamlet was instead like a lot of royal offspring: lazy and none-too-bright?
Like Laurence Olivier and Kenneth Branagh before him, Matthew R. Wilson pulls double-duty, directing while also playing the titular melancholy Dane. He takes a commedia archetype known as Arlecchino—often a servant, kindly but slight of wit, who wins out, like Forrest Gump, through dumb luck—and dresses Hamlet in that inky cloak. Which in this case is actually an argyle sweater with matching socks. And a newsboy cap. And short pants. Fear his vengeance!
Well, it’s worth a shot. After 413 years, give or take, the iconic revenge tragedy has sustained more reboots and retreads than Robin Hood, Batman, Spider-Man, the Hulk, and James Bond put together. But in practice, making Hamlet a clown drains the play of urgency, leaving one acutely aware that in addition to being (usually) the Bard’s most inwardly complex work, it’s also his longest. This production runs two-and-a-half hours with an intermission. In a more conventional telling, that’d be pretty fleet. The problem here is less the length than the fact that the second half is much, much more compelling and visually inventive than the first.
Still, even in that stodgy start, there’s plenty to admire. Some low-tech stagecraft gives King Hamlet’s ghost (David Gaines) an eerie mobility, and his “I could a tale unfold whose lightest word would harrow up thy soul,” speech—played like he’s haranguing his ungrateful grown son who never writes, never calls, instead of issuing a kill order from the undiscovered country—is funny. Billy Finn, his handsome features hidden by a mask in dell’Arte custom, is an admirably oily Claudius, and as Ophelia, Emma Crane Jaster vanishes into the role. (Jaster also pulls off the best straightjacket escape since Mel Gibson’s in Lethal Weapon 2, the year before he played Hamlet.)
The show is performed on the campus of Gallaudet University, and Wilson casts two hearing-impaired students, Marianna Devenow and Amelia Hensley, as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Their characters are deaf, too. Their sign language becomes part of the physicality that energizes the play’s second half, which picks up with the performance of The Mousetrap Hamlet has arranged to try to assess Claudius’ guilt. Gaines, the gifted mime and impressionist whose one-man show 7 [x1] Samurai was a big hit a few Capital Fringe Festivals ago, represents the entire company of players Hamlet hires. His mask work, wherein he peels away one paper face after another to change expression or to multiply the characters in a scene, makes you wish all of the show’s clowning was as elegant and specific.
Even though Hamlet’s pursuit of vengeance here feels more like a tedious chore he keeps delaying than a grave mission, the final showdown pays off in a weird but resonant way. Claudius’s slaying becomes a slapstick accident—he’s collateral damage in Hamlet’s duel with Laertes. When Hamlet at last turns to settle accounts with his father’s murderer, Claudius keels over before the prince can reach him. As a statement on the futility of revenge, that ain’t bad.