Quite the Mischievous Boy 

In Bad Epitaph Theater's production of Shakespeare's hit, it's dog eat dog in Denmark.

Those who still have nightmares of fussy literature professors drilling the metaphysics of the Melancholy Dane into their Yorick-like skulls can at last discard their defenses and old Cliff's Notes. At the Brick Alley Theatre is a no-nonsense Hamlet for cerebral but down-to-earth Joes who don't know their bodkin from a bodice.

David Hansen--Cleveland's champion of twentysomething madcap intelligentsia; founder of the antic subversive Guerrilla Theatre and the edgy Night Kitchen--has happily sought new horizons with his Bad Epitaph Theater Company. To commence, Hansen has scaled Mt. Everest with a three-and-a-half-hour Hamlet--an affecting tragedy by the Oscar-winning William Shakespeare, the widely known bard who supplied the source material for Kiss Me, Kate and The Boys From Syracuse.

Before the longhairs swoon and the civilians break out in a cold sweat, be assured that this coffeehouse Hamlet--given the long-winded title The Tragical History of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark--has nary a whiff of Stratford's embalmed blandness or the wrong-headedness of a recent production's trainload of pauses and Freudian baggage. Instead, Hansen works as a wise craftsman who knows how to channel his resources.

Featuring an eclectic and dynamic cast, more grounded in Stanislavsky and psychological realism than in plumy vowels and exalted emoting, Hansen's Hamlet emphasizes fast-paced storytelling over poetry and pathos, yielding a robust, energetic production. Using modern dress, ingenious economy, and performers who know how to captivate a wide variety of audiences, this interpretation reproduces in spirit the immediacy and vitality that the original cast production likely flaunted.

There are many pathways through Shakespeare's dense foliage. Kenneth Branagh's recent film took the Prisoner of Zenda swashbuckling route. Olivier gave us a chiaroscuro kingdom full of stately, golden-haired, Oedipal chess pieces.

Hansen propels his three and a half hours without a single traffic jam, using a barrage of twentieth-century archetypes. For instance, as the play begins, various courtiers enacting Beach Blanket Elsinore seem to have run out of beach balls and are tossing skulls for recreation. Alison Farwell Hernan's Gertrude, all good posture, public benevolence, and private bafflement, suggests a flame-haired, Pat Nixon-like first lady.

To complement Hernan's approach, Brian Pedaci's Claudius is a chilling combination of Nixonesque paranoia and icy, corporate CEO divisiveness. Pedaci has always excelled in portraying downtrodden losers. Here, in a solid oak performance that becomes the fulcrum of the play, he is the capitalist flipside of Stalin. In a fearsome performance of finely carved detail that delineates a blighted soul, Pedaci effectively evokes that vital something that is rotten in the state of Denmark.

Ultimately, this doll-sized Hamlet's pathway to victory is through a foggy hallucinogenic film-noir alley. Anyone fortunate enough to have been weaned on those 1940s hard-boiled tales of deadly encounters between tough-guy cynics, petty chiselers, morally bankrupt dames out for a free ride, and psychopathic crooks will appreciate Hansen's directorial concept. He peoples his tiny area with Raymond Chandler and James M. Cain types speaking in the Elizabethan idiom--an idea that worked for Orson Welles back in the 1930s with Julius Caesar and still cooks up a storm here. This Denmark, with its periodic puffs of dry ice, thugs in trench coats and uniforms, and tough cookies in nylons, evokes the Hollywood sound stages of the '40s.

The qualities of this particular Hamlet are prophetically embodied in a 1944 song by Frank Loesser: "This is the story of Hamlet, William Shakespeare's most notable play, a magnificent, dignified work of art--but for you, Buster, I guess I'll have to tell it this way ..."

To jazz up old folios, our enfant terrible has concocted some of the most ingenious gender switches since Howard Hawks turned The Front Page's male reporter into Rosalind Russell. Horatio, Hamlet's ever-loyal college buddy, in tights and codpiece, has metamorphosed into Maria Andrusewicz's glowing Hitchcock-style blonde. Exuding quiet devotion, this creates an interpolated love triangle between the eponymous Dane, his college buddy, and Christine Castro's lotus blossom Ophelia. When Ophelia flips her lid, she pistol-whips the entire court with her flowers. As her petulant big brother, Laertes, Jay Kim is boyish, brash, and impetuous.

What the fat man in The Maltese Falcon said to Sam Spade applies to this production: "There's no telling what you'll say or do next, except that it's bound to be extraordinary." Gary Jones is a pig-eyed, perspiring Polonius, done in by a .45 pistol instead of a rapier. Lee T. Wilson's crazed transvestite parody of Denmark's queen adds just the right touch of purple passion for aging Rocky Horror Picture Show fans. In this court, messengers are slinky, Lauren Bacall-flavored pavement princesses. There are smoking rods where there used to be daggers, and Allen Branstein's gravedigger combines the best bits of Samuel Beckett and Walter Brennan.

The biggest pistol of all is Thomas Cullinan's Melancholy Dane, done here as a nasal bad boy with a near lisp. Squinty-eyed, with a ferret-like kiss-me-or-kick-me intensity, he obliterates all the self-indulgent suffering hams who have smothered this role in faux nobility. The poet, prince, and philosopher may be on vacation here, but it is the crowning jewel for this he-man Hamlet.

For the academically inclined, yes, the language survives, delivered crisply for the most part and only occasionally muddled, as in a scratchy print of a vintage film. An ideal introduction for untested Shakespeare neophytes and, for those suffering from overexposure, a perfect way to rekindle an old flame with a sweet prince.

To sum up the words of the American Bard, Frank Loesser: The moral of the story is very plain--you better get a muzzle if you got a great Dane. And the name of this omelet is Hamlet.

The Tragical History of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. Through May 2 at Brick Alley Theatre, 4051 St. Clair, 216-556-4490.

More by Keith A. Joseph


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