Adapted by Paata Tsikurishvili from the play Hamlet by William Shakespeaere
Produced by Synetic Theater at the Kennedy Center
Directed by Paata Tsikurishvili
Reviewed by Tim Treanor
I herewith file the following minority report about the current revival of this widely-praised, Helen Hayes-winning production. The application of Synetic Theater’s astounding talents and amazing theatrical inventiveness to an effort to produce Hamlet without words proves one thing, and one thing only.
It can’t be done.
To produce a wordless Macbeth, as Synetic did earlier this year, is of a different order of magnitude. The sinewy Macbeth, Shakespeare’s shortest play, is stuffed with explosive action, and even the wordplay that resolves the story (“…was from my mother’s womb untimely ripped”) can be done representationally. A wordless Romeo and Juliet, which is on Synetic’s ambitious agenda for next season, is also comprehensible: love can be silent, and so can vanity. But Hamlet…Hamlet is about words; Hamlet is drunk with words, it is…“words, words, words,” as Hamlet himself tells Polonius. To do Hamlet without words is like looking at Guernica in black and white, or seeing the Grand Canyon in only two dimensions.
Hamlet…the rest is silence is fine storytelling, but the story it tells is not Hamlet. It’s a story a lot like Hamlet, but it’s not the real McCoy. It starts with a dance; Hamlet (Paata Tsikurishvili) enters with a skull. Whose skull? His father’s? Yorick’s? We haven’t a clue. Hamlet seems to confront his mother, Gertrude (Catherine Gasta) and her new husband Claudius (Irakli Kavsadze), but we’re not clear on the matter. Then it’s off for a weep, consoled by Ophelia (Irina Tsikurishvili, who is also responsible for the astonishing choreography). None of this comes from Shakespeare’s play, although it could have; Bill simply made different choices. The ghost of Hamlet’s father (Philip Fletcher) appears, as he does at the beginning of Shakespeare’s play, but here Claudius’ assassination of the King is explicitly acted out before our eyes, as it was not in Shakespeare’s script. This takes all the suspense out of the first half of the play, where we would otherwise try to determine whether Hamlet’s ghost-haunted quest for vengeance is madness.
Much of Hamlet’s wit – it’s a great deal funnier than some of Shakespeare’s comedies, and all of our own – derives from Hamlet’s verbal exsanguinations of the pompous Polonius (Armand Sindoni). Of course, that’s all missing here, and the consequence affects Polonius’ characterization. Sindoni’s Polonius seems leagues colder than any Polonius I’ve ever seen (his inexplicable dark glasses contribute to this impression), and while he is confused where appropriate the character’s sweet vulnerability is entirely absent in this production. (On the other hand, Hamlet’s scene with the Player King (Fletcher) and Queen (Irina Koval) is both hilarious and chilling, and represents Paata Tiskurishvili’s best on-stage work in the production).
The final portion of Hamlet is all action, and once we get to that point the production is something close to perfect – wonderfully inventive and true to the script. Once Rosencrantz (Nathan Weinberger) and Guildenstern (John Milosich) meet their dreadful fate (Synetic’s production of a boat, using only metal frames, plastic struts and human bodies, is a great moment in theater) we are home free. Ophelia, made mad by the death of her father, is made dead by the madness of her lover, and she drowns herself before our eyes. Human bodies are the fronds and lily pads of the pond in which she dies; they rise up as she sinks down. Later, Hamlet and Laertes (Ben Cunis) confront each other at Ophelia’s gravesite, and at the instigation of Claudius they fight a formal duel so powerful and athletic that the fact they aren’t actually using swords on stage is irrelevant (Geoff Nelson as a Court Jester is especially effective here). But – at the end Hamlet doesn’t die! He skewers Laertes, shish-kabobs Claudius and watches Gertrude choke on poison. As the armies of Prince Fortinbras arrive, Hamlet throws a big old handful of blood at them! How can that be?
There are some wonderful performances in this production. Gasta is so expressive that she makes Gertrude’s subtlest emotions accessible. The massive Kavsadze gives the best performance I have ever seen him give. His Claudius is a sort of Danish Tony Soprano, feral and smart – a man so at home in the corridors of power that it is easy to understand how he resented his brother’s monarchy. And Paata Tsikurishvili imbues Hamlet with so much rage that it becomes a sort of sacrament. That Paata has largely left the stage to concentrate on directing and the troupe’s artistic development is a significant loss.
This show, wonderful in its own right, is not a success as a wordless Hamlet. And yet…and yet you could see what sort impression it must have made on audiences when it debuted six years ago. Since then, a certain theatrical company by the name of Synetic has raised the bar, especially with its productions of Faust and Dracula, and we expect more from our magicians.
Running time: 90 minutes) Hamlet…the rest is silence continues at the Kennedy Center’s Family Theater Tuesdays through Sundays until June 17. Sunday productions are at 3; all others are at 7.30. Tickets are $30 and may be had by calling 202.467.4600 or on-line.