Sunday, January 11, 2009

Hamlet, Table for One

Last night I attended a rather unconventional performance of the most famous Shakespearean play to not involve star-crossed lovers. You know, it's the one where the Danish Prince Hamlet discovers that his uncle Claudius killed Hamlet's father (the king - now a ghost) so that he could shack up with Hamlet's mother (the queen - now a skank), and Hamlet meticulously exacts his revenge, and everybody dies?

This would be Hamlet, one of Shakespeare's finest comedies. It's an eminently provocative tale of murder, betrayal, revenge, and madness, with an abundance of wordy soliloquies featuring such catchy Shakespearean-cum-classic phrases as Neither a borrower nor a lender be | Frailty, thy name is woman | and To be, or not to be, that is the question.

What was unusual about last night's performance is that it featured only one man - Canadian actor Raoul Bhaneja. And no, the other actors didn't call in sick. Taking "Shakespearean monologue" to the extreme, Bhaneja performed the title role as well as the entire supporting cast, from the Ghost of King Hamlet to the lowly Gravedigger. This was Hamlet abridged, but only moderately so, as the performance was still 100 minutes of tongue-twisting, early seventeenth-century courtly language, filled with metaphors, puns, and innuendo.

Hamlet, performed as a solo, is clearly a feat from the very base reaction of holy crap, he memorized that whole f$%king thing?!! But there is much to say for the skill of the actor as well. During the performance, Bhaneja flowed seamlessly from character to character; proud and upright as the corrupt monarch Claudius, darkly vengeful as Hamlet, and meekly hunched as the love-sick Ophelia who slips into madness after being spurned by her lover. I had some difficulty discerning between a few of the roles at times, particularly when there were more than two characters in a scene together, but for the most part, the characterizations were very accomplished.

Bhaneja's most enjoyable performances were Hamlet, Ophelia, the tawdry Rosencrants and Gildenstern (their roles were far too brief!), and best of all, Ophelia's father, Polonius. I read Hamlet in high school and saw a traditionalky staged performance a couple of years ago, but last night was the first time I saw real humor in Polonius as a shifty and sniveling little stage mom, stopping at nothing to force his reluctant daughter, Ophelia, into the limelight and Hamlet's arms.

Thanks to this novel experience of having a familiar story stripped down to nothing but the text and a nuanced performance by a skilled actor, I left the theater with a deeper understanding of the tragedy, having caught on to - and laughed with - more of Shakespeare's wit than ever before - Therefore, since brevity is the soul of wit, And tediousness the limbs and outward flourishes, I will be brief.

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