Perhaps director Greg Foro and the BAMA Theatre Company could not have asked for a better setting than the Connelly Center’s Connelly Theatre on East 4th Street to stage their production of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. A miniature old world theatre stage, complete with grinning classical masks on a battered, gray painted proscenium, it quietly, without the use of scenery flats, and a minimum of props, establishes a subtly pointed atmosphere for this admirably pared down presentation of one of the English language’s greatest stage tragedies.
With just the presence of an old steamer trunk, from which are pulled props and costumes, the black curtained stage is almost empty, and our eyes and ears are focussed throughout on the actors and the language. The result, with this hard-working cast of just eight players to cover all the roles, is impressive. There isn’t an actor on stage who can’t sink their teeth deeply into the emotionalism of the moment and who isn’t capable of making the boards resound with anguish. And better, most refreshingly, the speech, with all its grand flourish, meter, and rhyme, is lent an almost contemporary natural rhythm, all of it brimming with conviction and detail. This is saying a lot given most people’s propensity to disengage from naturalism when faced with anything from the Bard. Historians and academics may ring their hands, but there is something significant happening around the Alabama Shakespeare Festival when it is producing actors and stagings of this calibre. If you are straining to hear a southern accent, you won’t here.
This is the company’s third annual presentation at NY Fringe and will undoubtedly uphold their reputation for showing leanly honed, emotionally fluent examples of Shakespeare’s eloquence. If the question is – can Shakespeare ever be modern? – then this – and not the trompe of putting a cast in thirties gangster tuxedoes and giving them cigarettes to smoke – must be as close as it comes. Everybody wins – the Bard, the actors, the audience; everybody, of course, but the beautiful losers of Elsinore.
At mid-performance, just after Hamlet has rigged a play to prick the conscience of his murderous uncle, Claudius, the two characters circle the stage silently for a beat, eyeing each other variously as hunter and quarry, before Claudius calls -”Give me some light!”- at which the house is plunged into darkness and we are moved to intermission. This delicious moment is a sample of the thoughtful direction and stagecraft on display here. There’s more than a hint of Beckett in the graveyard scene, gleefully played for laughs by Alison Frederick’s intoxicated gravedigger, but this section, so often a problematic episode for companies, holds fast, true to the rest of the production. Carnal, bloody, and unnatural acts indeed. As the tension mounts the bodies pile up, leading to that most notorious of final scenes that features lingering death monologues by three of the principal characters and the terrifying specter of overkill. But we are in safe hands here also. Matt Renskers’ Horatio holds the stage with passion even as the actor corpses rise about him and calmly assume their place at rear, standing silently facing the audience before final curtain.
Much credit is due to all the performers, several of whom wear crew hats also. Chris Roe is perfectly cast as the Prince of Denmark; a wiry, brooding presence with palpable intensity and an electric intelligence which plays at levity while never surrendering the character’s own self-absorption. Physically agile, vocally limber, Roe gives us a Hamlet as desperately fucked-up as the situation he finds himself in; as sticky and complex a role as ever written for the stage. Everyone really is pitch perfect, but if I was forced to mention names a nod would have to go toward Roe; to Alison Frederick, whose Ophelia is genuinely disturbing; and to Nick Lawson, whose Laertes is quite a bit more than just a hot head.
I certainly wouldn’t have a problem recommending this production to any audience, but if you’d like a chance to observe some singular actors do their thing, delivering in full-blooded form the scenery-shredding language of William Shakespeare, at the perfect venue, then this NY Fringe festival ticket is really all that; smoking hot.
BAMA Theatre Company
Writer: William Shakespeare
Director: Greg Foro, Assistant Director: Sarah Walker Thornton
VENUE #7: Connelly Theater
Sun 14 @ 12 Wed 17 @ 2 Mon 22 @ 4