As its second offering in this season dedicated to themes
of revenge and conscience - the first was "The Tempest"
- Kings County Shakespeare Company is presenting "Hamlet,"
directed by Jemma Alix Levy.
Featuring the company’s veteran Equity troupe, "Hamlet" runs from Aug. 9 through Aug. 24 at St. Francis College’s Founders Hall in Brooklyn Heights.
"It was a very conscious choice," said Renee Bucciarelli, associate artistic director of the Kings County Shakespeare Company (KCSC). "We talked about it soon after 9-11 Shakespeare wrote ’Hamlet’ in the style of a revenge play. It has madness, a perpetrator, a ghost and an avenger driven mad by trying to figure out whether or not he wants revenge. But Shakespeare changed the nature of the beast. It’s the first time someone in English drama asked the question, ’What is the price we pay when we decide to get revenge?’ It’s been said that this is the first great tragedy after the Greeks."
Bucciarelli’s other principal contribution was the decision to cast two women as the gravediggers.
"The ratio of women’s parts to men’s parts in a typical Shakespearean play is about 3-to-17," she said. "We look for ways to cast women in men’s roles that support the text with a result that may be an enrichment of the text."
But gender bending is not the only thing that makes this staging unique. Levy has clearly approached "Hamlet" by a road she believes has previously not been taken. The company established itself as a non-traditional interpreter of "Hamlet" with its 1992 production "Genet/Hamlet," which fused Shakespeare’s tragedy with Jean Genet’s prison novel, "The Miracle of the Rose." And Levy’s direction is certainly in this vein.
"The story is so well known that people tend to view it as a complete story about a guy who goes crazy because he sees the ghost of his dead father. There’s a girl who goes crazy. There’s a weird relationship with his mother. And everyone dies in the end," Levy said. "I’m trying to make the story new again by allowing the audience to see it through Hamlet’s eyes We’re trying to approach Hamlet as a new play so every piece comes to light as a surprise."
One way of achieving her goal is by leaving open the question of whether or not Hamlet is actually insane, because, said Levy, "Hamlet himself doesn’t know."
Another way is by focusing on the question of what exactly the ghost is - angel, devil or hallucination. "Hamlet himself doesn’t know, and we want the audience to go on his journey," Levy explained.
In this production, the ghost never appears onstage but is represented by a beam of light and the offstage voice of Dan Snow (who also plays the Player King).
Unlike many interpreters of "Hamlet," Levy does not believe there is much that is particularly unusual about Hamlet’s relationship with his mother, Gertrude.
"Gertrude loved her son a little more than she should, but there’s nothing incestuous in their relationship," said Levy. "Hamlet is a normal son. She annoys him because she’s his mother. He wants to protect her because she’s his mother. Their relationship is very typical."
In fact, Levy sees Gertrude more as a victim than a perpetrator. "She is not implicated textually in the killing [of Hamlet’s father]. Claudius has all the power, even though she is the queen."
The role of Gertrude is taken by Deborah Wright Houston, who is also KCSC’s artistic director, playing opposite Cullen Wheeler’s Claudius. Hamlet is played by Sean McNall, whose Shakespearean credits include Octavius Caesar in "Julius Caesar" at the Public Theater’s New York Shakespeare Festival and the title role in "Romeo and Juliet" at the St. Louis Shakespeare Festival and Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival.
The production features the choreography of Erika Kinetz; and the costumes of Rebecca Dowd, who dressed the actors in turn-of-the-century Edwardian clothing. Dowd made this decision, said Levy, "because clothing of that time was very restrictive to women, and it reflects the restrictions on women in the play."
Levy, who was a dramaturg and text coach for last season’s "The Taming of the Shrew," has also directed Shakespearean dramas for the New Jersey Shakespeare Festival ("A Midsummer Night’s Dream"): and Runamuck Theatre Company in Austin, Texas ("Measure for Measure," "Richard III"). But this is her first time directing for KCSC, and directing "Hamlet."
Levy is grateful for the opportunity to direct this play, which, she said, contains "some of the most beautiful language ever written."
"It’s unusual for someone as young as I to have a chance to direct Hamlet," said the 29-year-old. "It’s a huge undertaking, and it shows a huge amount of faith on the part of the Kings County Shakespeare Company."
Like Bucciarelli, Levy believes this is a timely and called-for production.
"’Hamlet’ is a story about a man caught between believing and not believing, between knowing and not knowing, between heart and head," she said. "For him, it comes down to justice or revenge. That is the same question most of the world is facing after Sept. 11. What is the difference between justice and revenge, and which is more appropriate?"
Bucciarelli believes Hamlet comes down firmly on the side of justice.
"An eye for an eye doesn’t work," she said. "An eye for an eye leaves you with a pile of dead bodies."
Kings County Shakespeare Company’s production
of "Hamlet" runs Aug. 9-24, on Mondays and Wednesdays
through Saturdays at 8 pm, with matinees Saturday at 1 pm and
Sunday at 2 pm. Final performance is Aug. 24 at 1 pm. (No evening
show.) Performances take place at Founders Hall, St. Francis
College, 182 Remsen St. Admission is $10. For tickets, call Smarttix
(212) 206-1515 or visit www.smarttix.com.
There will be an artists’ panel discussion that includes director Jemma Alix Levy and actor Sean McNall on Aug. 11, after the matinee performance, and a panel discussion on "Hamlet Post 9/11: Conscience and Revenge," featuring several Shakespearean scholars including William Heller of New York University, Brother Edward Wesley of St. Francis College and Dick Riley, who co-authored "Bedside, Bathtub and Armchair Companion to Shakespeare" with Park Slope author Pam McAllister, on Aug. 18.