Reviewed by Will Stackman
As the third Hamlet in four months around here, the Actors' Shakespeare Project's production of the longest play in the canon has their usual flair for the unexpected plus eclectic casting. Directed by the New Rep's Rick Lombardo, the show is being done of the stage of the old Strand Theatre in Upham's Corner, Dorchester, a Boston redevelopment area. This once grand movie palace is being slowly resurrected. Both the audience and the action are mostly on the large stage itself, with all the seating stage left as per Lombardo's design. There's plenty of somewhat obstructed overflow seating in the orchestra however. Some of the action does happen in the house aisles and the Ghost is first seen up in the middle balcony. The rest of the "set" is three building scaffold units, two fixed, one rolling, plus a large rolling platform/table, a chaise, and a couple of bentwood chairs.
The cast has the usual mixture of styles and training with effective enunciation being the only commonality. The title role is taken by the company's founder and Artistic Director , Benjamin Evett, a 20 year veteran of the ART from his student days at Harvard. His nemesis, Claudius the King, is played Johnny Lee Davenport, a widely experienced Shakespearean, seen with Shakespeare & Co., who last appeared in Orlando Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar" in the title role. His longterm goal is to be the first African-American actor to appear in important roles in every play in the canon at least once; he has nine to go. Gertrude the Queen, Hamlet's mother, is done by ASP regular Marya Lowry. Her husband Robert Walsh, who's directed for the company, plays a vigorous Polonius. Both have appeared in numerous Shakespeare productions throughout the region. Brandeis M.F.A. Marianna Bassham, seen at the New Rep, the Lyric Stage, and other prestige venues is Ophelia, Polonius' unfortunate daughter, Hamlet's sweetheart. Her brother, Laertes, is Yale MFA Edward O'Blenis, whose credits range from Shakespeare in Nebraska to "Big Trouble in Little Hazard" in NYC. Horatio, Hamlet's old friend, is done by Willie E. Teacher, a recent Brandeis MFA, who's done Shakespeare with the Classic Theatre of Harlem and the Colorado Shakespeare Festival. part of his varied credits.
Most of the smaller roles are doubled, which brings the cast to 16, counting avant-garde composer Bill Barclay who performs onstage with the players using a digareedo, an out of tune piano and singing glasses. He also plays a steel cello under covered pit during the show. ASP regular Ken Cheeseman appears as The Ghost of Hamlet's Father, the Player King, and the First Gravedigger, the first two roles which the Bard may himself have assumed. Fight director Ted Hewlett, another Brandeis MFA, plays Rosencrantz, the Priest, and at the climax referees the very athletic duel which starts with rapiers and ends with sabers. Sarah Newhouse, seen last season as Cordelia and Viola, starts off as Guildenstern, played as a man, and winds up as Osric, a woman , played as the Queen's social secretary. Skidmore grad Jason Bowen is Marcellus in the opening and Fortinbras at the end. Patrice Jean-Baptiste, a Trinity MA, does the Player Queen, and Reynaldo from Polonius' household. Risher Reddick, seen at the Publick Theatre in "The Beard of Avon" this summer, is ambassador Cornelius--without his final message--as well as Bernardo, while Robin Smith, a Bowdoin grad is Francisco and the 2nd Gravedigger. Many of these actors also set and reset the stage, function as messengers and deal with other necessities.
The outstanding lighting design from John Malinowski, who's lit almost every important space in the area including the Boston Common, makes use of the unusual arrangement of the theater. Arthur Oliver, Shakespeare & Co.s resident designer, who dressed the ASP's "All's Well..." last spring, has done this show in indicative modern dress, ranging from the Ghost in a bleached cammie jump suit to Ophelia in a ruined oversized evening gown for her mad scene. Claudius is always seen in formal wear, Hamlet in disarrayed black, except when he borrows motley from the Players. The company's basic metaphor of actors reinterpreting the text according to their own special skills while remaining faithful to the original has again resulted in interesting Shakespeare, at least three hours of it. The integrated cast, especially appropriate in this venue, adds an contemporary dimension to the production. ASP is also working with the Strand on a year-long residency starting with internships during this production and culminating in a production of "Romeo & Juliet" in the spring by the Strand Youth Theatre.