With Hamlecchino, Clown Prince of Denmark, Faction of Fools is not necessarily doing something new with Shakespeare’s most famous play; rather, they are attempting to make the play even older than it is. This theater company specializes in commedia dell’arte, the Renaissance Italian theatrical form with players wearing caricaturish masks performing comically stylized stock characters. It became popular in London by the 1560s, and much evidence suggests it influenced Shakespeare. Faction of Fools demonstrated how in its hugely successful A Commedia Romeo and Juliet earlier this year.
Hamlet, however, is a stretch, far beyond the bounds the company knew it was o’erleaping when it decided to tackle this play. In his director’s notes, Matthew R. Wilson, who also plays Hamlet, demonstrates how Shakespeare’s characters track with Commedia stock characters: the put-upon patriarch (the Ghost), the randy wife (Gertrude), the charismatic interloper (Claudius), the babbling advisor (Polonius), the young lovers (Ophelia and Laertes), and the clever servant who schemes out the plot to set all right (Hamlet). Commedia conventions include stylized movements and postures, extracurricular slapstick acrobatics, and acknowledging the audience (Billy Finn as Claudius even consults with one of the audience’s sign language interpreters during his attempt-at-prayer soliloquy). The players also wear masks, and Aaron Cromie’s creations are so detailed—Ophelia’s even has a mole on it—they seem genuinely expressive.
Still, even if elements of commedia crept into Shakespeare’s play, Hamlet is something of an art form in and of itself. It can only be categorized as Shakespearean, and no matter what form this play is translated to, the result will always be something less than the two versions of the Hamlet Shakespeare gave us. This is not, however, to denigrate Hamlecchino anymore than saying it is not really Hamlet. Not only is it great theater in its own right, Shakespeare purists would do well to put aside their prejudice against non-traditional stagings and check out this production, for it offers many insights into the characters and their lines. They will also see a truly great Hamlet in Wilson.
Wilson’s expertise in commedia dell’ arte is unquestionable: he has even taught the form in Italy. With this performance of Hamlet, he reveals himself to be an expert in Shakespearean verse, too. Marrying his commedia choreography and comic emphasis to his verse-speaking abilities and Shakespearean sensibilities, Wilson plays the soliloquies, in particular, with wholly fresh takes on lines we all know so well. Ironically, though wearing a mask and overemphasizing gestures and inflection, Wilson demonstrates Hamlet’s soliloquies to be craftily written trains of thought that wend their own way and sometimes jump tracks, i.e. Shakespeare’s genius in genuinely portraying meditation. Wilson also removes the conundrum of the “Rogue and peasant slave” soliloquy by excising any notion that Hamlet had already settled on the play as the thing to catch the conscience of the king. With the idea as obvious as the nose on his mask, Wilson turns the “Fie upon’t, foh! About, my brain!” line into an extended psychological comic interaction with the audience.
Catering to commedia conventions means altering points in the plot. The climactic fencing bout is played entirely for laughs, and while the clever choreography of Hamlet and Laertes (John V. Bellomo) exchanging rapiers is inspired hilarity, it results in a wholly unShakespearean comic demise for Claudius. Polonius’ death is also played entirely for laughs, with subsequent slapstick remorse for Hamlet, so don’t look for a great psychological watershed moment in Hamlet’s evolution. The players become one player, but that one player, David Gaines, uses a clever succession of primitive masks to portray different parts, and rather than speaking the Priam and Hecuba speech, he mimes it, replacing Shakespeare’s great moment of pathos with Gaines’s brilliantly funny dumb show. Horatio is played by Rachel Spicknall as a woman who has a crush on Hamlet, which alters the shadings of the Prince-commoner relationship Shakespeare wrote into their scenes. The most notable alteration comes about through a play-long gag inspired by casting Gallaudet University students Amelia Hensley and Marianna Devenow as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, respectively. Hamlet’s journey to England is totally dropped, so Rosencrantz and Guildenstern do not end up dead. Instead, the famous line about their demise becomes a groaner of a pun. Their use of American Sign Language also becomes a comic set piece: Hamlet, their old friend, signs fluid ASL, but the clueless king and queen translate their conversations into sexually suggestive gestures, and Polonius (Toby Mulford) uses what can best be described as pidgin ASL in his description of Hamlet as mad that is the production’s funniest moment, mutually appreciated by hearing and hearing-impaired audience members alike.
Mostly, though, the production mines the comedy already rife in Shakespeare’s original text: we just do not always see the breadth and depth of that comic vein in other productions. Even the ghost proves inherently funny. Gaines’s Ghost alternates his voice between an otherworldly specter —“My hour is almost come, when I to sulphurous and tormenting flames must render up myself”—and that of an impatient grandpa grown cynical—“Pity me not but lend thy serious hearing to what I shall unfold.” (Kudos to this production, too, for using multiple actors playing the Ghost to create the “’Tis here! ‘Tis here!” sequence in the opening scene.) The Ghost also waggles his hand when describing his “most seeming-virtuous queen,” and as we had already met this sex-addicted woman (played by Eva Wilhelm), we understand the Ghost’s meaning. In the closet scene when Hamlet compares the pictures of his dead father and uncle, Gaines’s Ghost and Finn’s Claudius themselves play those pictures.
For all the comedy gleaned from this tragedy and Hamlet's seeming something closer to George Carlin doing a stand-up routine than the melancholy Dane speaking a soliloquy, Wilson in both his playing and direction is ever-respectful of Shakespeare’s poetry. As Wilhelm’s Gertrude solemnly recounts Ophelia’s death, Emma Crane Jaster playing Ophelia performs an aerial ballet sheathed in water-emulating fabric that is as visually powerful as the spoken speech. Jaster also uses her acrobatic skills (and beautiful singing voice) to great effect in the mad scenes, plucking and presenting invisible flowers with her feet. Is the audience’s collective gasp in reaction to the humor portrayed there, Laertes’ agony, or Jaster’s skill? It is for all three at once. After the levity of the final scene, the production ends with a visual image emphasizing that for all its fun, this really is The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark.
No, it is not Shakespeare’s Hamlet, per se. It is Hamlecchino, Clown a commedia dell’ arte version of Shakespeare’s version of an ancient story that the Bard composed at the height of his creative and story-telling powers. The genius of this production is clearly inherited from its progenitor.