In the brainy university town of Austin, capital of the state of Texas, many will argue in favor of a favorite song or play but few other than the freshmen at the vast downtown UT campus will insist on their choice of the ultimate movie or band or work of art. Shakespeare is the best writer! Death Cab for Cutie is the most sublime band ever! Dostoevsky has captured the true infirmity of the human soul!
Those absolutes fade as one ages, reads more and experiences more. Our favorite Shakespeare plays are Measure for Measure and Coriolanus but, nonetheless, Hamlet is probably the best of Shakespeare's plays.
Your ardent freshman university student might argue that Hamlet has the best lead role, the most emphatic villain, the saddest heroine, and comic foils everywhere. The plot is tight and moves between the supernatural and political themes with a seamlessness emulated in everything from Brave New World to Star Wars. Its ending is tragic beyond tragedy and its message as meaningful as it is morose. If a theatre company were to choose one work as their flagship production, then they could do no better than this, Shakespeare’s magnum opus.
Others could riposte that the play is sprawling, complex, and behooving of a certain reverence; one should not be approach it lightly. This solemn viewpoint was evident in the Hamlet of Justin Scalise produced here last year, initially at the Scottish Rite Theatre and later in the eerie confines of Boggy Creek cemetary.
There's no lack of additional comparison. The University's Shakespeare-at-Winedale program has just performed the master work for five weeks in a country barn, starring the talented Yale law student Daniel Friedman; Austin's City Theatre did Hamlet with Aaron Black in 2009; and Austin Shakespeare stages it later this month with the actress Helen Merino in the title role.
But no one does Hamlet as often or as remarkably as Japhy Fernandes and the Austin Drama Club. They've just mounted their sixth production since 2004. Unlike previous editions staged in a clandestine home theatre eventually shut down by the City of Austin, this one took place twice nightly over two weekends at the shabbily reputable Off Center, in east Austin.
Fernandes's most recent vision of the bard’s classic is on a different level, nay, on a different planet from the play’s traditional interpretation, and this is by all means refreshing. The company has crafted a version that highlights the eight main characters and their stories. All minor characters and sub-plots have been completely excised and some lines have been reassigned. In this production Horatio is the one who barks that something is rotten in Denmark.
But these characters are far from Denmark.
Rob Novak is Hamlet, Japhy Fernandes is Claudius, and Ellen Fernandes is Gertrude. In their signature guerrilla-theatre fashion, the ADC company uses lots of curtains, a few paintings and a makeshift, garage-style bar and cabaret to transform the black box of the Off Center into a place without country or time. The low light and constant ambient background noise complete the illusion and create a setting straight out of science fiction. We see vestiges of various eras: foils, chalices, record players, cell phones, whiskey bottles and modern art blend together. The ghostly low lighting and the intermittent wisps from a smoke machine give the viewer the feeling of peeking into the characters' minds rather than spying on them in their castle.
That is the nub of it: the actors incarnating the eight main characters display their own particular interpretations of neuroses and psychoses. The effect of this is largely comic.
Ophelia’s descent into madness is usually portrayed as a young woman shouting and bleating nursery rhymes and love songs to an onstage audience frozen in their inability to understand or help. In this production, Elena Weinberg’s Ophelia literally sings her blues to the accompaniment of a thumping bass and wailing guitar. There is little sadness and much strangeness in this approach but it remains true to the character’s self-alienation and descent into vulnerability.
Rob Novak as Hamlet still cries “Frailty, thy name is woman” in reference to his mother, yet Ellen Fernandes’ interpretation of Queen Gertrude is anything but weak. Closer in temperament to Macbeth's queen, Fernandes’ Gerturde is icy cold, vigilant, and impossible to distract. She kills to protect what she has. This Gertrude makes one wonder whose idea it was to kill Hamlet’s father in the first place.
At a certain point one of the curtain-walls collapses, smoke pours out, and Larry Oubre as the ghost of Hamlet’s father steps out and sings a harrowing rendition of “Vesti la Giubba” ("Put on the costume") from Leoncavallo's 1892 opera Pagliacci. The piece fits the play’s mood, builds the tension and offers a nice musical relief from the play’s dramatic action. Fittingly, this aria concerns a man who has just discovered his wife’s infidelity.
Austin Drama Club’s sixth production of Hamlet is not only a look at the characters' individual mental breakdowns but also a nod at the group’s own journey. During the play-within-a-play scene, the actors gather around a television to watch a video recording of the play within a play made by their own company several years previously. The post-modern maneuver acknowledges that the themes of Hamlet remain timeless and suggests that the theatrical desire to re-explore them will never end.
-- co-authored with Brian Paul Scipione