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A CurtainUp Review

If thou didst ever hold me in thy heart,
Absent thee from felicity awhile,
And in this harsh world draw thy breath in pain
To tell my story.

--- Hamlet to Horatio, Act V, scene 2

A full telling of Hamlet's story can run almost five hours. The abridged but embellished version mounted at The Public Theater this season (linked below) went on for close to four hours. This adaptation by "ellen beckerman & company" clocks in at a sleek hundred minutes. 

This should serve as a fairly obvious warning to anyone seeking a faithful rendition of the play. This is decidedly not a version of the story for the unfamiliar. Although there are moments of it that will entertain almost anyone, novices to Hamlet will most likely find it obtuse: heeding Hamlet's plea to Horatio above is not its first priority. It is equally inadvisable fare for hard-core purists, both because they will not find much of what they come looking for, and also because they will not find a cast that is especially focused on commanding Shakespeare's poetry. Appreciating the charms of Ms. Beckerman's conception instead requires relaxed consideration on an informed but fairly blank slate. 

To understand what this company has done, and how they've done it, let's begin by looking at its self-description:  "... an ensemble of theater artists who believe the body is the source of power in performance, and who approach theatre with an emphasis on the physical and the poetic." This is indeed a production that stresses the physical, not to the exclusion of the words as might a dance theater work, for instance, but to their diminution. Shakespeare's text, with its famous monologues and aphorisms, serves as the crumbs scattered along the path as Beckerman tries to find a movement-based language to express herself. 

A cast of only seven is involved, doubling rarely except as the Players. In addition to members of the two families -- Claudius (Shawn Fagan), Gertrude (Sheri Grabert, who is exceptional) and Hamlet (a compelling James M. Saidy); Polonius (Elliott Kennerson), Laertes (Taylor Bowyer) and Ophelia (Margot Ebling) -- it includes only Rosencrantz (C. Andrew Bauer) and Horatio (Josh Conklin). The Ghost possesses this Horatio, through whom his lines are channeled. 

Because of Beckerman's emphasis on physical expression, it follows that the play's more violent elements linger in her focus, as do the sexual component of Ophelia's relationships. The unseen forces affecting the young prince's mental state also manifest particularly visually here, Hamlet's arms lurching as they are drawn in different directions. The same is true of the depiction of Ophelia's very messy descent, which receives disproportionate attention, and stage time, in this rendering. 

It is very arresting, then, when the play reaches an unexpected emotional peak as Hamlet and Horatio connect at Ophelia's grave, a setting for which Horatio has been preparing in a curious but most inventive way throughout the earlier scenes. It leaves me wishing for more such moments. 

The impact of Beckerman's powerful, eclectic musical score is substantial; I wouldn't have minded a little more. It punctuates on-stage movement beautifully and flows into several set dance pieces. The latter, although brimming with energy and cleverness, are not especially well integrated. 

Lack of cohesion is, in fact, the work''s greatest drawback overall. Though Ms. Beckerman throws a host of ideas in our direction, she never succeeds in ordering them in a purposeful theme. Press materials suggest that, "by setting the play in a timeless desert -- from which each character must find a way to escape his tragic fate -- this production means to focus on Hamlet's struggle against the myth of his own heroism, and his search for a way to live freely in a world that constrains him." The desert motif is little more than a euphemism for a bare stage, and the promised focus seems to have been a mirage. I'd love to see beckerman & company take this work to another level. 

CurtainUp's review of The Public's Hamlet 
by William Shakespeare 
Directed by Ellen Beckerman 

with C. Andrew Bauer, Taylor Bowyer, Josh Conklin, Margot Ebling, Shawn Fagan, Sheri Graubert, Elliott Kennerson and James M. Saidy 
Lighting Design: Michael O'Connor 
Sound Design: Ellen Beckerman 
Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes with no intermission  
A production of ellen beckerman & company 
>HERE Arts Center, 145 Avenue of the Americas (Dominick/Spring Streets) (212) 647-0202 
Opened March 19, 2000 Closes April 2, 2000 
>Reviewed by Les Gutman 3/20/2000 based on a 3/16/2000 performance

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