As the lights in the Black Box Theater (BBT) dimmed, a wave of silence swept over the crowd. All eyes watched as the five actors – costumed to match the characters they would portray – formed a straight line before the audience and began reciting the first lines of Shakespeare’s tragedy, Hamlet. In the next 38 minutes that were to follow, the audience would remain spellbound by the intensity and occasional comedy that unraveled before them.
Brought to New College by theatrical adaptation professor Andrei Malaev-Babel and Student Affairs, the “condensed” version of the 17th-century play transformed the tiny BBT into the Kingdom of Denmark. The play was performed by third-years from the Florida State University at the Asolo Conservatory who have put on their production for “fourth graders to general adult audiences.”
Before the Thursday night performance, Director of Student Activities and Community Konnie Kruczek had her fingers crossed that “hopefully 50” students would “take an hour from their studying” to attend. Judging by the wall-to-wall Novocollegians, as well as some Sarasota locals, people still have a place in their heart for entertainment other than what is on their television or computer screens.
“The point was to attract students that may be turned off by a two-hour production,” Kruczek said. “We wanted to model to the students how the space [in the BBT] can be used and give them ideas how they can use the space themselves … Student Affairs paid $500 for this, but [it was] free for students.”
In this ensemble performance, there were several distinctions from the original five-act staging. For one, the title character himself, or rather herself, was portrayed by a woman, clad in a black blazer to promote androgyny. The duo of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who played a pivotal part in the full-length original, were tactfully removed from the play. Additionally, the famous “To be or not to be” soliloquy was delivered not only by Hamlet, but by all members of the ensemble taking turns reciting lines from one of theatre’s most iconic speeches. The setting, very much like the very first performance of Hamlet in bygone England, was minimalistic, using items such as paper crowns, chairs and plastic fencing swords to highlight intense moments. The ghost of Hamlet’s father was portrayed merely by a crown affixed to a rod dangling from a piece of string like a fishing rod, another moment where all the actors (with the exception of Hamlet) came together to create the beginnings of Hamlet’s insanity. Instrumental music went perfectly with the moods and the physical motions of the actors to create the tension-filled atmosphere.
After all of the characters had each met their own tragic ending, the actors resumed the straight line formation they had taken at the beginning of the play and discussed the content and technicalities of putting on the show. One of first questions that came up was how the actors felt about gender-crossing in the play, considering that the title character was not played by the traditional male actor.
“[Playing Hamlet] was something I hadn’t even considered,” actress Katie Cunningham said. “When I saw the cast list, I was in shock … but then again, Hamlet’s not the most testosterone-filled character in Shakespeare.”
One of the biggest challenges, Cunningham added, was dealing with the variations of space they deal with every time they put on the production. Having performed everywhere from planetariums to school gymnasiums, with all the sword-fighting and physical contact, making sure to not accidentally hurt someone in the audience is always a factor they must be very conscientious of.
“My biggest fear is not for us, but for the audience,” Cunningham said. “The space gives us a unique challenge that we have to deal with every time [we put on a show].”
There are two casts that put on Hamlet Redux, this one with five actors, the second with six. With the shortage of actors on hand, simple costume changes were necessary to transition from one character to the next. For example, actor Luke Bartholomew played both Laertes and Polonius – a suit jacket and pair of shades were the only thing to set them apart. Tony Stopperan used a ski cap and scarf to go from playing the wicked King Claudius to the gravedigger at Ophelia’s funeral.
Months of rehearsal and planning went into the performance.
“We started back in April,” Stopperan said. “The director and co-director came from New York and got to know the ensemble … we’d have discussions [about the play], sit around and read the script, trim it down … sometimes one cast would rehearse and we’d watch.”
For first-year Diana Siegel, coming to see Hamlet Redux meant “being cultured and seeing a play.”
“[My favorite part was] when Ophelia saw that her father was dead,” Siegel said. “She didn’t really have a lot of lines before that … she was pretty quiet and chaste … and when she was doing that part with the flowers was really good. It was the best performance of Ophelia that I’ve seen.”
“I enjoyed it a lot,” first-year Chelsea Driver said. “I liked the sense of [the production] being an ensemble cast. They worked really well together and you could tell that they were all really well-connected.”
What did she think of Hamlet being played by a woman?
“I thought [Cunningham] was really good,” Driver said. “It was played so ambiguously by the way she was dressed and how she lowered her voice that I wasn’t even thinking that it was a lady.”
The Asolo will be playing with the concept again when they perform Hamlet: Prince of Cuba in the spring. This performance will be bilingual with some shows done in English and others in Spanish.