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A CurtainUp Review
Hamlet from the Theatre De La Jeune Lune

Vincent Gracieux as Claudius,    Steven Epp  as Hamlet &  Barbra Berlovitz as Gertrud
Vincent Gracieux as Claudius, Steven Epp as Hamlet & Barbra Berlovitz as Gertrude
(Photo: Michael Daniel
The Theatre de La Jeune Lune (Theatre of the New Moon) is committed to "finding theatrical sustenance by looking for the new in the old." When it comes to Hamlet, the one play that's most likely win top place on any English teacher or theater lover's list of plays richest in language and character, the urge to find something new dates back to when Shakespeare first put it on with the Lord Chamberlain's Men. The five hours needed to tell the melancholy Dane's story have prompted abridgements that scuttled scenes and characters and updates in which Hamlet shoots rather than stabs Polonius, Claudius resembles a corporate CEO and Ophelia tosses pills instead of flowers in her mad scene.

The Hamlet that's making a ten-day stop at the New Victory Theater uses all the stage techniques that have built the Minneapolis based La Jeune Lune Company's reputation for artfully finding that "something new in the old " -- masks, pantomime, improvisation, clowning and commedia dell'arte. It's certainly one of the most beautiful productions I've ever seen and with a Hamlet (Steven Epp) like no other. He's more clown of Denmark than by birthright the country's Crown Prince, hardly a man you'd want to have in charge of a country.

To begin, we see masked figures circling the sand covered stage, their torches lighting several pools of water, one for Hamlet to dip his foot in as he ponders whether "to be or not to be." The striking images continue for the almost two and a half hours -- Claudius (Vincent Gracieux) and Gertrude (Barbara Berlovitz) in blood-red costumes reflecting the murder that made Claudius the crowned king and the dead king's widow his wife; a striking confrontation in which Hamlet, in the embrace of his father's ghost (played by Gracieux in a sly bit of double casting), confronts the duplicitous Queen; a satisfyingly savage battle between Hamlet and Laertes (Stephen Cartmell).

Before I go any further, a caveat for parents. While this adaptation is at the family-geared New Victory Theater, and despite the title character prompting more than a usual number of laughs, this is not Hamlet for kiddies. Granted that without all the psychological and political elements, the play is essentiall a family story. However, the feud between the familes of Hamlet, Ophelia (outstandingly portrayed by Sarah Agnew) and Laertes has enough sex and violence for parents to be well-advised to heed the New Victory's recommendation not to bring children under twelve. Hamlet doesn't just stab Claudius, but does so several times over as if taking pleasure in the deed. Not exactly something I'd want some of the six to ten-year-olds I saw the night I attended to see.

And here's another caveat. This one for purists, and along with some never-mind reassurance. The concentration on the family drama will have you looking in vain for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and Fortinbras the Prince of Norway. Obviously half of the full length means some good stuff must fall by the wayside. What's more, despite Fredericka Hayter's stunning masks and the lovely to look at and exciting staging, the longer first part of the production during which Epp indulges his Hamlet in his most comic antics, goes somewhat too far over the top. Happily, the most memorable passages are not only there, but delivered thoughtfully and without the rushing by all members of the cast, including Epp. The second part of the play succeeds at combining Hamlet's highest emotions with the immediacy and physicality the company aims for.

Marcus Dillarrd's lighting augments the mood of each scene, and Sonya Berkovitz's costumes are perfectly suited to the non-specific time frame. Finally, enough can't be said about Eric Jensen's original music, performed from a box at the side of the stage by Jensen and cellist Elizabeth Karges. It punctuates the flow and tempo of story's building tensions.

My caveats and quibbles aside, La Jeune Lune has put on quite a show, full of interesting acting and staging choices. No Bardophile will want to miss it.

Written by William Shakespeare, adapted by Paddy Hayter with Theatre De La Jeune Lune
Directed by Paddy Hayter
Cast: Vincent Graci eux (Claudius, Ghost of Hamlet's Father), Barbra Berlovitz (Gertrude), Steven Epp (Hamlet), Luverne Seifert (Polonius, grave digger), Stephen Cartmell (Laertes), Sarah Agnew (Ophelia) Jason Lambert (Horatio) Kevin Bitterman (Osric, Francisco) Kristoper Lencowski (Priest, Bernardo), Joel Spence (Marcellus, grave digger, player king), The company (players and chorus)
Scenic and Mask design: Fredericka Hayter
Costume Design: Sonya Berlovitz
Lighting Design: Marcus Dilllard
Original Music, keyboards/music director: Eric Jensen Cello: Elizabeth Karges
Running time: 2 hours and 20 minutes, with one intermission
Theatre de la Jeune Lune of Minneapolis, Minnesota
at the New Victory Theater, 209 W. 42nd St.,, 212/239-6200
Order Tickets
October 23 - November 2, 2003
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on October 25th performance

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