Hamlet. The proverbial capstone in the arc of theater history. From Olivier to Branagh, countless great actors have taken on the titular role. While the play itself has become everything from a means of entry into the world of theater for many disgruntled high school English students to a favorite illustrative example in the writings of world-class scholars, it has also been seen just about every possible interpretation staged more than once. It is therefore rare, especially for frequent theater goers, to see a Hamlet that pushes the boundaries.
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Against all odds, the Shotgun Players Hamlet does just that. There is no star performance to review here. At the outset of the show, the names of the actors are all packed into Yorick’s skull. The actors line up on stage, behind a lineup of scripts which list the different characters. An audience member in the front row picks an actors name out of the skull, drawing for each character in succession. When an actor is assigned a role, they grab the script, and quickly dart off stage to get into costume. That is the beauty of this Hamlet. All the actors know all the roles, and which one they play is decided nightly. There’s no end to the possible Hamlets we might see. One night he might be biracial, struggling with his identity as well as his love for a squat old man named Ophelia. The next she might be a tall blonde, seeking to kill her young, Hispanic aunt/mother, Claudius. The cast is full of standouts, but as you might see an entirely different show, I cannot possibly review any single performance. And that’s the beauty of it. As the brilliant director Mark Jackson writes in his Director’s note, “the endless flood of diverse possibilities pouring out of [this] Hamlet might be far more interesting, surprising, and entertaining than any single version.” Much like all great productions in the past have told a unique story with the same words, this Hamlet manages to tell a unique story every single night.
While certainly a night to remember due to theatrical merit, Shotgun Players presents Hamlet is also strangely reaffirming. For the true Shakespearean, it is an invigorating reminder that even 400 years after his death, the work of the bard holds countless more possibilities for performance still waiting to be explored.
It runs through July, and if you’re like me, you’ll be seeing it more than once.
Tickets available here: https://shotgunplayers.org/online/hamlet