Transparent Theater's dauntless new interpretation of Shakespeare, The No Ghost Hamlet, is one of those purists-will-blanch productions. It's a modern dress show set in the preternaturally green-lawned suburb of Elsinore, where Hamlet is a punky college girl, her uncle didn't kill her father, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Jesus freaks, and there is, as the title indicates, no ghost. But there is also no new dialogue and nothing has been rearranged; artistic director Tom Clyde has effected his transformation of Shakespeare's classic tale of revenge and madness with utmost cleverness, cutting carefully and creating stage action that brings new meaning to words at least four hundred years old.
It's not unusual for a woman to play Hamlet; Sarah Bernhardt did it (apparently badly, if the critics of the time can be trusted) in 1899. It is unusual for Hamlet to be reimagined as a woman, and it's a change that makes things very interesting. Now Polonius' opposition to his daughter Ophelia being romantically involved with Hamlet becomes a case of homophobia, and part of Hamlet's issue with Claudius isn't that he killed her father (in this version, he didn't) but rather that he abused her when she was younger, before he married her mother. I'm giving that surprise away because the clues in this production are very subtle, almost to the point of illegibility under the guitar stylings of the Tragedians of the City (the rock band that here replaces the troupe of actors a more traditional Hamlet would instruct in the creation of a play within a play). The intimation of incest between Hamlet and Gertrude that informs the original story is completely redirected, and the way Hamlet throws herself angrily against the world has an entirely different flavor.
It's also not unusual for great chunks of the play to be cut out; otherwise, the whole thing as written can run five hours. Clyde has cut it down to two and some change, but the cuts aren't solely for audience comfort; they streamline the story from an epic of madness, regal fratricide, and supernatural manifestation to a smaller, simpler, but no less intense exploration of two suburban families caught in a private hell of abuse and appearances. The casting bears this out. Perennial Willows nice guy George McCrae makes his Transparent debut as an apparently well-meaning Claudius, Mary Knoll is a perfectly rough-edged Gertrude caught between her playfully sexual relationship with her new husband and her obligation to a daughter she just doesn't understand, and Melanie Flood finally takes center stage as the sullen, go-for-broke Hamlet, a young woman in the depths of despair who clearly feels she has nothing to lose. While some of the acting goes over the top sooner than is strictly necessary, the overall sensation of a situation moving toward a horrible climax is stronger than in more traditional Hamlets where the audience has to wade through the courtly murk while Hamlet runs wildly from room to room. The transformation, while narrowing the story, also opens it up in new directions, as with the suggestion that Ophelia's death is accidental.
In places, the adaptation is brilliant, in others at least clever. There are places where the experience is a lot like watching The Wizard of Oz with Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon on the stereo; moments where the conjunction of Shakespeare's words and Clyde's adaptation is downright eerie. A good example would be Hamlet and her friends coming back to the house stoned -- "Time is out of joint," she says, and the moment becomes funny without lessening in any way the seriousness of the overall story. Speaking of which, many of Shakespeare's original humorous moments have been excised, most notably the bit with Yorick's skull, but the play doesn't suffer the loss. In fact, it makes things a lot easier to follow if we're not trying to keep track of Fortinbras and Norway and so on.
The No Ghost Hamlet doesn't replace the original, and sometimes feels as though it draws its strength from the audience's knowledge, however passing, of the original, but it still stands on its own as a keen-edged, unforgiving look at the darkness behind one troubled woman and her family.
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