Capital Fringe Festival 2009: Bad Hamlet

Claudius at Prayer Hamlet, Delacroix 1844

To be, or not to be. That is the . . . point?

Mayhaps. Every script goes through revisions. The script of a play — Hamlet, say — that predates copyright law, and that was often scribbled down as it was performed and passed around in incomplete or inaccurate transcripts, could diverge in innumerable directions, like a game of telephone (albeit 280 years before the telephone). ‘Twasn’t until 1623, seven years after William Shakespeare’s death, that two of his former colleagues in the King’s Men compiled reliable versions of 36 of his plays in what’s now referred to as the First Folio.

In his absorbing experiment Bad Hamlet, playwright/producer John Geoffrion pares Shakespeare’s longest play to its most iconic scenes, but stages it in a kind of binary format, with the First Folio version and an earlier version attributed to 1603 performed simultaneously.

Snatches of verse that vary from the ones still familiar to us four centuries on are fun to spot for Shakespeare geeks. But what’s more diverting is to watch two actors tackle the same roles (and substantially the same speeches) simultaneously, engaging in a sort of verbal ballet that occasionally lands on a symmetrical line reading. A dextrous company of six gives us dueling, sometimes gender-blind characterizations of Polonius, Ofelia, Laertes, and of course, the titular melancholy Dane, portrayed by John Robert Keena in the 1603 “Quarto” version, and Matt Volner in the more familiar Folio text.

Keena gives us a lusty, coiled Prince, while Volner’s interpretation is cooler and more cerebral. (Relatively speaking; we are talking about one of the chattiest navel-gazers in the history of English fiction here.) The two actors don’t ignore one another — rather, they interact during Hamlet’s soliloquies, and it’s so fascinating a device that I’d be shocked if some enterprising director hasn’t tried splitting the role among two actors before.

Director Sarah Denhardt keeps the blocking of the parallel versions clean and intuitive, and sometimes indulges in more variation than is indicated purely by the texts. For instance, her 1603 take on the scene were Hamlet kills Polonius is more incestuous than the later version.

“Pass with your best violence,” Hamlet challenges Laertes in the play’s climactic duel. But that line was, we learn, a replacement for one in the 1603 text that better describes Bad Hamlet: “Pass with your most cunning display.”

Bad Hamlet (adapted from William Shakespeare by John Geoffrion; directed by Sarah Denhardt; approx. 60 min.) will have its final performance of the festival tonight at the Bodega at the Trading Post, 1013 7th St. NW, at 7 p.m.

This review originally appeared on DCist.

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