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A CurtainUp Review

O, that this too too solid flesh would melt,/ Thaw and resolve itself into a dew . . . — Hamlet
If you're bored with watching conventional stagings of Shakespeare, drop by the Sheen Center in downtown Manhattan where Waterwell's dual-language Hamlet is sure to re-whet your appetite for the Bard. Directed by Tom Ridgely, and featuring Broadway names Arian Moayed (Hamlet), Sherie Rene Scott (Gertrude), and Micah Stock (Horatio), this is no garden-variety Hamlet

Ridgely incorporates Shakespeare's English and a Farsi translation (based on the 1965 version by Mahmoud Etemadaedeh) and homogenizes it into a dramatic whole. He also transports the play from Denmark to Persia (now Iran) a hundred years ago. Although his bi-focal conceit and switching between languages may sound like it would be confusing for the audience, the story of the play is always intelligible.

According to a director's note in the program "the alternation between the two languages places these two cultures in continual tension and becomes the central means by which these characters navigate their relationships to tradiiton and modernity, East and West, Islam and a more secular world."

Staged in the round in a black box theater with some audience member's sitting on cushions just inches away from the raised circular performing space (the simple but elegant set design is by Jason Simms), this production evokes the cozy atmosphere of telling an old tale around a campfire. In fact, no audience member is ever more than a few feet from the stage at this performance.

There's a lot of re-shuffling of scenes and speeches, and streamlining of text in this adaptation. The most conspicuous change is the relocation of Hamlet's famous to-be-or-to-be speech from Act 3 to the final act. From a dramatic viewpoint, I'm not sure it totally washes. After all, shouldn't we eavesdrop on Hamlet's suicidal state of mind earlier in the action? But from a poetic viewpoint, it‘s good for the audience to be surprised by its migration to Act 5. Indeed, this speech in performance is too often viewed as a competition between the actor reciting it in real time and his notable predecessors. But why reduce the monologue to an elocution contest when it's far better to listen and contemplate its life-and-death mysteries along with the protagonist?

Say what you will, the re-shuffling of scenes and speeches keeps the play from tasting stale. The architecture aside, it's wonderful how easily a production falls into place when you have the right actors in the right roles.

The Iranian-born Arian Moayed has the acting range and stamina to play the eponymous character. His Hamlet is in turn melancholy, gracious, cruel, philosophic, merry, crazy— and very Persian. As Moayed shifts from English to Farsi, and vice versa, we become acquainted with a deeply divided man who can't decide whether to listen to the Christian impulses of his heart, or the Ghost who speaks of revenge only in his native tongue of Farsi!

Micah Stock, as Horatio, turns in a strong performance as well. Stock's Horatio is rightly calm and stoic as Hamlet's loyal friend and confidante. Many actors playing Horatio have turned him into a shadow of Hamlet or a milquetoast. Stock avoids this pitfall, and portrays him as the ideal Renaissance man — or to see him through Hamlet's viewpoint— as "a man who is not Passion's slave."

Sherie Rene Scott is luminous as Claudius' Queen and Hamlet's mother Gertrude. Gertrude is re-imagined here as a foreign consort, and, as a kind of "outsider," she speaks no Farsi. Although Scott sometimes speaks Shakespeare's verse a tad too fast, she is otherwise spot-on. While she can be ever so regal-looking at court, she also coyly flirts with Claudius (the excellent Andrew Ramcharan Guilarte) in more private moments. On one occasion when they are dancing together in front of an old-fashioned gramophone, she lassoes him with her scarf, and they playfully run off stage.

Sheila Vand, as Ophelia, doesn't overdo her maiden lunacy when she is parceling out her assorted flowers in her mad scene. I'm not sure if this makes her a better or worse Ophelia. But when she speaks in Farsi, she's altogether charming, and one can understand why Hamlet fell in love with her.

The entire acting ensemble is in fine fettle, and obviously delights in Shakespeare's language whether it's spoken in English or Farsi. A shout out to Arash Mokhtar and Abraham Makany as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, respectively. Many view them as Shakespeare's counterparts to Lewis Carroll's Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum. But nicknamed or not, Mokhtar and Makany project their characters' muddle-mindedness to perfection.

Some stagings of Hamlet can turn into tests of endurance for the audience. But this enterprise, double-distilled in English and Farsi, with original music performed live by Mohsen Namjoo, is as refreshing as spotting a patch of black-eyed Susans along an old dusty highway.

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Hamlet, by William Shakespeare, in an adaptation with Shakespeare’s English and in a Farsi translation.
Directed by Tom Ridgely
Cast: Barzin Akhavan (Ghost, Player King , Priest) Amir Arison (Laertes), Maryam Ataei,(Player Queen, Lady), Brendan Averett (Captain, Sailor, Ambassador), Cary Donaldson (Fortinbras), Andrew Ramcharan Guilarte (Claudius), Abraham Makany (Marcellus, Guildenstern), Arian Moayed (Hamlet), Arash Mokhtar (Barnardo, Rosencrantz), Ajay Naidu (Polonius, Gravedigger), Sherie Rene Scott (Gertrude), Sathya Sridharan (Voltemand, Player, Osric), Micah Stock (Horatio), and Sheila Vand (Ophelia).
Scenic Design: Jason Simms
Costume Design: Nina Vartanian
Fight Direction: Christian Kelly-Sordelet
Lighting Design: Reza Behjat
Sound Design: Sinan Re k Zafar
Original Music: Mohsen Namjoo
Production Stage Manager: Caroline Englander
The Sheen Center for Thought and Culture, 18 Bleecker Street, downtown Manhattan. Tickets: $55. 866-811-4111
From 5/10/17; opening 5/21/17; closing 6/3/17
Wednesday, Thursday @ 7pm; Friday, Saturday, & Sunday @ 8pm; Saturday and Sunday matinees @ 2pm.
Running time: 2 hours: 30 minutes with one intermission
Reviewed by Deirdre Donovan based on press performance of 5/19/17

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