Groundlings gathered in Dupont Circle Saturday night to watch Empty Chair Theatre Company juggle skulls and, eventually, die all over the fountain’s north steps in a swashbuckling and free public production of Hamlet.
Lasting just under two hours, the candle-lined show kept a tight focus on the prince’s internal struggle, cutting scenes concerning Fortinbras’ approach. The result was a brisk and engaging rendering of Shakespeare’s classic, light on rhetoric and heavy on scenes calibrated to capture would be passers-by.
Director Elizabeth Nearing’s crisp, open staging and the actors’ impressive vocal projection showcased the public appeal of Elizabethan performance. Despite light rain, a crowd of about 120 people (and several dogs) had gathered by Hamlet (Mark Tucker) and Laertes’ (Mark Meixell) duel.
Empty Chair Theater Company, founded in 2007, performs Shakespeare across the DC area, striving to blend “original Elizabethan practices with present-day theatrical sensibilities” according to the company’s Facebook manifesto.
Empty Chair Theatre Company
“blown youth blasted with ecstasy”
by William Shakespeare
Directed by Elizabeth Nearing
Aug 15 – 18
1469 Harvard St. Rear
Admission by donation.
Details and reservations
In keeping with the basic staging, offstage actors sat on the fountain steps. Costumes were kept to an effective, gestural minimum, with robes for royalty and t-shirts for everyone else. The gravediggers, in tank tops and straw hats, were quite successful in attracting audience members, especially when they pulled three realistic-looking skulls from a plastic trash bag and began tossing them around.
Swordfights were nimbly adapted to the fountain’s marble steps, and touches won shouts and jeers from several onlookers (“Hit him again!” at one point). It was easy to imagine performances in Shakespeare’s time, when raucous audience members felt perfectly entitled to yell comments back at the actors. Empty Chair’s company relished this attention, pointing back at audience members on lines including “A whoreson mad fellow’s it was” (V.I). This proximity to and back-and-forth with the audience created a more playful, direct atmosphere than is found in most modern playhouses.
Hamlet joined a series of outdoor arts programming organized by this year’s DuPont Festival, succeeding June’s screening of “Back to the Future” and Airmen of Note’s Jazz in the Circle. For those unable to join in person, the festival’s Twitter provided a brisk and brutal play-by-play.