If you want a show that goes for the jugular, then get thee to Main Street Theater’s limited-run production of Hamlet, starring the superlative Guy Roberts. This isn’t just a rendition of the famous soliloquies—although those are performed—but a stunning presentation of over a dozen characters in a compact 90-minute performance. It is a marvel to watch.
Roberts is the founder and artistic director of Prague Shakespeare Company, and I first saw him in his fantastic adaptation of Homer’s epic, An Iliad, a multi-layered examination of the wages of war. He has been internationally recognized not only for his acting and directing, but also for his commitment to the production of the works of William Shakespeare. So, if Shakespeare is your own personal “undiscovered country,” this is the guy you need to see. And he’s here, now, so don’t blow it! Don’t wallow in some Hamlet-esque sea of indecision, if you know what I mean.
The minimalist set (Brad Caleb Lee) is perfect for letting the audience focus on the characters and Shakespeare’s language. Roberts is just in a dark sweater and jeans, and other than a screen behind him with some lines from the play and character names, the only thing on stage are a few props: a chair, a scarf, and umbrella. A piece of paper. Eric Sammons’ sound and design are simple and successful, from the music to the ominous voice of The Ghost. This set-up works well because the language is the thing, and as much as I love those lush, detailed film versions of Hamlet, for the stage, this is the way to go in the 21st-century. It doesn’t matter so much that something is rotten in Denmark; is matters to us, in Houston, Texas, that something is rotten in Denmark.
Roberts is a chameleon, and watching him is like taking a master class in acting. He makes choices that surprised me—and often those are the best kind to make. Who wants to watch a version of Hamlet that just reinforces every version that you already have in your head? Answer: hardly anyone with an imagination. For example, (except a few guards, I think), no one has a Danish or even English-y accent. Maybe a little Irish and Scottish. Instead, Hamlet is Americanized, as are his immature and foolish frenemies, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. You have never seen Rosencrantz and Guildenstern until you have seen Roberts' Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.
Instead of thinking Scandinavia, think Southern California. (I know—evil genius!) Not only does this infuse parts of Hamlet with some unexpected humor, it reminds us that Hamlet and his friends are just college kids—what do they know? They can wax philosophical with all that great vocab they learned at Wittenberg, but hey, man, they're still kids. It made me realize that in almost every production of Hamlet, everyone is way too old to play these characters. No wonder royals always seem to crack up: they have, or feel they have, the weight of the world on their shoulders.
Roberts breaks the fourth wall a few times, a great strategy with contemporary audiences. We know some of Shakespeare, but the language can still be intimidating. Roberts' measured and unrushed delivery allows us to truly appreciate the lyricism of the language, but, perhaps more importantly, allows us to understand what each character is saying. This is a win-win situation: If you love Hamlet as much as I do, and have seen hundreds of incarnations of it, you'll love this interpretation as it's a breath of fresh air for something you can’t get enough of. But if you're a rookie, well, then, you are one lucky winner. You will completely understand what's going on with Hamlet and his dysfunctional world because Roberts is delivering a Renaissance text in a vernacular way—and the accessibility makes us engage. He doesn’t change the lines; he makes the tenor and the vehicle contemporary, and it works.
Another highlight for me was Roberts’ sheer range: from slick and slimy Claudius to his defensive Gertrude, you know who’s on first, and what they are about. I loved his over-the-top foppish Osric—I never even cared about Osric until I saw this production of Hamlet. I loved the pantomime required to know one character was holding the hand of another character. But that is the beauty of a new way of dramatizing things: it reminds you that even the most minor characters count in Shakespeare, as they are the lights that further illuminate the characters with which they interact.
There is one scene that's worth the price of the ticket alone. Remember when Hamlet tells the traveling actors how he wants them to perform, and have the words come trippingly off the tongue and all that jazz? Well, this scene is perfectly executed by Roberts and is not to be missed. You realize, on a profound level, that Hamlet has skillz, and he really wants to be a director, and he really knows what he's doing for a play, but directing the whole state of Denmark? Nah, not so much. The play-within-a-play took on an even greater significance than I had previously considered, and if a performance can make you have an epiphany about a work you think you know well, then much has been accomplished.
Roberts is also responsible for adapting the play to this format, and that must have been a daunting task. What do you cut from one of Shakespeare’s most beloved plays? We don’t get Polonius’s advice to Laertes, but frankly, I didn’t miss it. I like how this show zeroed in on Hamlet and his discontent. That was more than enough for me. So, reason not thee need, and hither to Main Street Theater, so you can see Hamlet in all his glorious angst.
Runs through Jan. 19. Go to mainstreettheater.com for more information.