Fresh take jazzes up venerable Shakespeare play

By Nic Helms Special to The Tuscaloosa News

Performances of William Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” are always games of expectation: What fresh take on “To
be or not to be” can possibly exist under the sun? Seth Panitch’s production of “Hamlet” at the University of
Alabama this week does not disappoint on this score.

Setting the play in the 1950s of Greenwich Village, Panitch pits Hamlet’s tortured soliloquies against the
stylings of original songs by Tuscaloosa musician Nick Boyd, influenced by Miles Davis and John Coltrane.
With the soliloquy as saxophone solo, we’re encouraged to hear Hamlet’s sufferings as improvisations
rather than 400-year-old recitations, new thoughts flowing from a new character. Ian Anderson plays this
dynamic wonderfully, giving his Hamlet a range from apathy to apoplexy, from fits of laughter to outbursts
of violence. That dynamic would not be complete, of course, without the talents of saxophonist Boyd. Boyd
composed and played the haunting melodies that provided a constant accompaniment to Anderson’s
soliloquies, at the curtain call sharing the final bow with Anderson.

Visually, the production emphasized the darkness of “Hamlet”‘s language, the blacks and grays of a stone
backdrop contrasted with a set of long mahogany caskets actors shuffled about onstage to create each scene.
Above hung a video screen, upon which the contents of Hamlet’s mind — as I guess — were projected: a
hand, a sea of blood, the word ‘murder’ scrawled upon a wall. But, as with the jazz that inspired its pacing,
the production did not stay in a minor key throughout.

The show emphasized the humor of Shakespeare’s play, reveling in Hamlet’s wit, in Rosencrantz and
Guildenstern’s absurdity, in Polonius’ self-importance. Anderson was strongest in these comic moments,
bustling about the stage more like a comedian than a prince, and here the laughter freely flowed from the
audience.

The acting in this production was of a uniformly high caliber, from the leading talents of Anderson, William
Green (Claudius), and Bailey Blaise Mariea (Gertrude), to the absurd hijinks of Alex Renee Hubbard
(Rosencrantz) and Zach Stolz (Guildenstern), to cameo appearances from University Provost Kevin
Whitaker (Osric) and The Tuscaloosa News arts writer Mark Hughes Cobb (the gravedigger).

In particular, Naomy Ambroise was a delightful Polonius, mother to an ethereal Ophelia (played by the
always-talented Caroline Ficken) and the proactive Laertes (played on opening night by the understudy Rex
Glover). Morgan Chare’ce Hall was billed as Laertes, but on the night I saw the show she had to step away
from the role due to an injury sustained in rehearsal. While Glover was a fine Laertes, tender with his sister
and always fiery toward his enemies, I regret not having seen Hall in the role. Laertes is always a foil to
Hamlet, an action hero to the melancholy Dane’s chronic inaction, and casting this avenging son as a
woman of color might have opened up a world of interpretive possibilities for the play.
As he has shown in past shows, Panitch has a deft hand at cutting Shakespeare, feeling free to use the
Bard’s text as a living document for today’s audiences.

The show clocked in at just under two hours including intermission, a hefty cut of a play that can run to
over four hours. The entire subplot of Fortinbras’ invasion is absent, as is much of Claudius’ political
rhetoric and Hamlet’s rather dated jokes at Polonius’ expense. None of this material is missed. This ample
cut lends the play a rapid energy. It starts not with Bernardo and Marcellus upon the battlements — talking
of ghosts and affairs of state — but with Hamlet, suitcase in hand, wearing a tight black turtleneck and a
leather jacket, weeping over the casket of his father: “O that this too, too solid flesh would melt, thaw, and
resolve itself into a dew.” We’re launched into the jazz-like turmoil of Hamlet’s line from minute one of the
production, a frenzy that does not cease until “the rest is silence.”

If you want a traditional “Hamlet,” feel free to look up Mel Gibson on Youtube. But if you want to jazz up
the Bard a bit, be sure to catch this production from the University of Alabama’s Department of Theatre and
Dance.

Nic Helms teaches for the University of Alabama Department of English.