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To Be, or Sort of Be Hot

Matthew Barbot
Written by Matthew Barbot     August 15, 2007    
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To Be, or Sort of Be

Photos: Dixie Sheridan

Isabelle Assante’s Horatio is an interesting experiment: using only lines from Hamlet, Assante has told a whole new story, taking place “some eight year or nine year” since the events of Shakespeare’s play. Horatio, wandering the country with a goofy but loyal company of players—likely the same players that performed Hamlet’s "Mousetrap" play—is now telling the story of Hamlet with them through a rewritten version of The Murder of Gonzago. Grieved by the loss of his closest friend (and, the play more than implies, his lover) Horatio attempts suicide beside Hamlet’s grave. Horatio wakes up again in a world between death and life, Heaven and Hell, where he again meets Hamlet, but their reunion is not what Horatio had bargained for. Horatio, the only character to whom Hamlet’s plans and actions are completely revealed, has spent all his time idolizing Hamlet’s sacrifice in meting out his justice. Hamlet, however, has spent his time in this purgatory haunted by the specters of all those for whose death he is responsible. He charges Horatio with a new mission: to tell a different story, one where he, Hamlet, is to blame. Joined by the loyal players, who commit suicide to join Horatio, Horatio finds himself again struggling to understand Hamlet’s state of mind, leading to a final, bloody confrontation.

The choice to use Shakespeare’s words is a confusing one. At times it is deeply effective, particularly when Horatio is referring directly to events in Shakespeare’s play. For example, a scene in which Hamlet is surrounded by the skulls of his family and friends and, upon recognizing each one, addresses them individually with words he used in “life,” is very moving. The reason it works in these situations, however, is because it’s thematically relevant; it is only natural that when a character is being haunted by a past event, or a scene or character is deliberately mirroring a similar piece from Hamlet, that the words from Hamlet are used. Tom Stoppard’s classic play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, executes this balance perfectly, using lines from Hamlet only when you’re supposed to think of Hamlet. When the words are not supposed to recall Shakespeare’s play, however, the choice to use his words often works against the goal. In fact, the biggest obstacle to my enjoyment of Assante’s play was that for the first twenty minutes or so, every time a character spoke my mind went to the scene in Hamlet from which the line was taken, making it very difficult for me to decipher what was happening except for on a very basic level.

Once I overcame this hurdle, however, and either became used to disassociating the lines or became less and less familiar with them, it became rather impressive how expressive Assante was able to be while only using Shakespeare’s words (with very minor variations, here and there). The dialogue fits, makes sense, and successfully tells a whole new story. Assante’s experiment comes off mostly successful. The only question is why the story absolutely had to be told this way.

The cast, through and through, is up to the task. While the focus of the play is on Richard Gallagher’s Horatio and John Pasha’s Hamlet, it is the band of Players that steal the show. Like the Rude Mechanicals in Midsummer, they are lighthearted and insightful, and contrast sharply with what is mostly a dark play. The five players are strong actors and provide a nice anchor for the ethereal, supernatural atmosphere. Gallagher and Pasha hold their own against them, though. Gallagher’s Horatio is wry and deep, and Gallagher’s command of the language makes him great to watch. Pasha is something of a mixed bag. In certain scenes—such as the aforementioned skull scene—he is quite good, but a tendency to overact like he’s on a soap opera makes it fortunate that he’s not the play’s focus. He would do well by trying a more natural approach.

The play is very impressively staged, particularly for such a bare-bones performance space. The set consists of two arches through which a number of entrances and exits are made. The Players’ trunk of properties sits center stage, from which, naturally, all the props are taken. The trunk also serves as a desk, a stage, a bench, and other things, making it the main set piece. The costumes are more or less contemporary, the exception being Hamlet’s clothes, which are not only in an antique style but are ragged and dirty, befitting a tortured soul. Once the Players commit suicide, their causes of death are prominently featured in their costumes: one player bears the criss-cross wounds of a quartering, one a slit neck and one a pair of slit wrists; one proudly wears a noose around his neck, and the last has a long, pink intestine protruding from the front of his shirt. The Players also provide the music, and this is perhaps one of the most enthralling elements of the show. They sing, they hum in harmony, and in the climactic sword fight, they provide a riveting fight theme with only a recorder and the percussion of hands against the trunk and the floor. Their score is so fitting and well performed that one often forgets that it’s not being piped in through speakers, but is actually being performed with no instruments by the actors on stage.

Horatio is an interesting experiment and an entertaining play, but at an hour and fifteen minutes long, there’s plenty of room for expansion. While satisfying to watch, one still leaves with the question of why it was written. It’s not clear what, if anything, Assante was trying to say with this show or why she chose to use only Shakespeare’s words to say it. A play that uses the characters and story of what is often considered the greatest play written in the English language is somewhat lofty for a merely “entertaining” production; it begs to be deeper. It cries out for a deeper examination of either the play Hamlet or of some other theme. Isabelle Assante’s Horatio seems like a great start to what can one day be a very compelling play.

Horatio is part of NYC’s Fringe Festival. For more information, go to

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