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Hold Thy Peace reinvents Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet’

By Ben Beriss

Section: Arts

October 27, 2017

With its captivating production of “Hamlet,” Brandeis’ Shakespeare troupe Hold Thy Peace has reinvented a classic show to create a meaningful and eerie performance.

The show takes a novel approach to “Hamlet,” shaking up the moral alignment of the characters by casting Hamlet Sr. as a domestic abuser and his murderer Claudius as the (at least partially) righteous protector of the victimized Gertrude. As such, the play becomes a horror story reminiscent of “The Thing,” with Old Hamlet’s ghost slowly exacting his revenge while the rest of the characters descend deeper into confusion and madness.

The actors, led by director Abi Pont ’19 who created the show, use this perspective shift to create new versions of the classic characters. Their performances rest on an impressive understanding of Shakespearean dialogue which allows them to deliver the notoriously dated lines with as much clarity and emotion as they would in modern conversation. The understanding also allows them to draw on the “standard” interpretations of their roles and shift them just enough that they reflect the change in antagonist.

The standout performance in this play comes from Riely Allen ’18, who creates a Claudius acting out of true empathy and genuinely tortured by the violence which seems inevitable to him. Bryan McNamara ’19 as Hamlet similarly projects a soul tortured by confusion over his father’s death but with a brutality which betrays the influence of his father. Their performances, along with that of Eli Esrig ’19 as Laertes, Hamlet’s rival, are characterized by a defiant, if confused, strength which causes them to lash out as the play goes on. They are contrasted with the performances off Elizabeth Gentile ’20 and Casey Bachman ’21 as Gertrude and Ophelia, respectively, who convey the damage of abuse with performances which start out powerful and defiant but collapse into weeping and madness as the trauma becomes overwhelming.

Kerstin Shimkin ’21 as Polonius, the mother (traditionally father) of Ophelia and Laertes, paints a touching portrait of a concerned parent while simultaneously helping to keep the first section of the show relatively light with the ceaseless prattling synonymous with her character. Emma Cyr ’19 as Horatio creates a similarly touching portrait of friendly devotion, serving as Hamlet’s faithful friend and backup. They both present genderbent versions of their characters without comment or winks to the audience, prompting an interesting conversation about how we regard these relationships differently depending on gender.

These leads are backed by an equally impressive ensemble which switch from role to role instantaneously. Oliver Leeb ’21 exemplifies this, at times undercutting the tension with deadpan comedy, and other times delivering a chilling dramatic monologue. Zack Garrity ’20 and Eliana Weiss ’21 also stand out as the concerned yet conniving Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, respectively. Weiss is also notable for her grimly comedic performance as the sarcastic gravedigger who prompts Hamlet to rethink death.

Throughout the show, Ryan Sands ’19 as the Ghost creates a silent and ominous presence which shifts the mood away from predictable tragedy and towards a captivating horror.

The show is presented in the white box Merrick Theater with minimal tech. A simple bench and curtains comprise the set, lighting mainly shifts only to follow shifting actors and sound design is almost entirely made up of subtle sound effects. This approach, however, perfectly matches the performance-driven nature of the show. The actors are more than capable of filling the room themselves and the technical aspects merely add simple touches that emphasize or accent important moments.

The unique white box space is also used to seat the audience in a traverse, or two sections facing each other, with the actors playing between them and to their sides. During many scenes, this enhanced the immersion—such as when mourners surround the audience during a funeral—but at other points made it difficult for certain seats to see the full events of the show.

This nontraditional seating arrangement likely contributed to the clunky blocking the show suffers from in several scenes, in which awkward positioning of the actors severely undercuts the emotion. Similarly, the show has problems with pacing during nonverbal scenes and actors occasionally fall out of character or resort to cartoonish overacting while not talking. And there were rare but noticeable audio and enunciation blips which would temporarily break the connection to the show.

Despite these small problems, the show is an impressive testament to the power of Shakespeare’s words. Pont has managed to shift their meaning in a way which subtly changes the mood of the show but illuminating the core emotions behind it. By doing this show she has created an attractive performance which can be appreciated as a metaphorical illustration of the lasting and severe damage abuse can cause or simply a highly dramatic monster story to match the Halloween season.

“Hamlet” is playing through Oct. 29 in the Merrick Theater in Spingold, with performances at 7 p.m. on Friday, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. on Saturday and 2 p.m. on Sunday. For tickets, call 781-736-3400, buy them in-person at the SCC or Spingold box office, or purchase them online.

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