New York, New York, what a wonderful town! A hidden gem, the Hudson Guild Theatre is located in the Hudson Community Centre on West 26th Street. Off-Broadway troupes and others can rent its 156-seat space, and it was home this month to an innovative production of Hamlet. The final production was the July 28 Sunday matinee.
The play was produced by Schiffbauer Theatricals and Emily S. Moyer, and John William Schiffbauer directed. A Bard College and Columbia University MFA graduate, he has acted in other Shakespeare classics off-Broadway and off-off Broadway. He has directed the Roosevelt Island Summer Shakespeare Festival, and is the author of a full-length play as well, Live Broadcast.
From the opening scene, skillful directing puts the audience on alert. The guards who first see the ghost of Hamlet’s father are dressed in Army fatigues and carry machine guns. The ghost is wearing a blue suit and tie. The scene is set: this production will surprise.
Queen Gertrude is modern-day regal in a business suit, high heels, and corporate leader jewelry. Claudius, the new king, sports a business suit and tie and a commanding voice. The courtiers wear business attire also, one of them dressed for casual Friday. Like the flower child she is, Ophelia has on a hippie-style dress and cowboy boots.
But that’s not all. Voltemand, charged with taking important papers out of the country, is a woman in spike heels and expecting. Lean In has nothing on this production. Rosencrantz is played as a woman also. She and Guildenstern come across as more than just friends of Hamlet—more like apartment-mates or lab partners—old, familiar buddies who give a darn.
Communicating bad news is updated in this version. After Hamlet mistakenly stabs Polonious, Gertrude’s first move is to punch someone’s number into her cell phone. This doesn’t surprise Hamlet—he checks his emails throughout the play on his.
Kyle Knauf, a graduate of Columbia’s MFA Acting program, brings a mad giggle and manic voice to the character of Hamlet. Like a promising grad student who is asked to stay home for a while after his father’s death, he turns his analytical eye on everything. His all-too-new stepfather cautions him against grief that is too deep and long, but that’s not what bugs him. What bugs him is his stepfather.
Polonius is a major figure in this production. Experienced actor Kim Sullivan makes him especially chatty and opinionated, and Claudius makes him the butt of a well-timed eye-roll in response. But when Claudius is taking advice about a tight royal decision, it is Polonius’ nod—behind the backs of the other court figures--that he looks for before he announces his own agreement.
So it becomes more significant that when Hamlet comes into his mother’s rooms for a chat, Polonius is the one hiding in the draperies to see if Hamlet has totally lost his marbles. And so it is Polonius, advisor to Claudius one last time, who is stabbed.
Both wise and foolish, his plate is full. At the same time he is trying to keep the Danish court together, he is a concerned father trying to help his son, Laertes, and his daughter, Ophelia, make it through life there in one piece.
The results are mixed, but Sullivan is consistently excellent in his role. His repertoire is extensive, from roles on television hit “Law and Order” to King Lear to an appearance at Rochester’s regional GeVa Theater in You Can’t Take It With You.
When itinerant players arrive at the palace and give their rendition of a king’s murder, Claudius and Gertrude sit in the actual audience to watch it, and so do Hamlet and Ophelia, in seats that had been mysteriously marked "reserved." Although the audience is looking right at them, they respond only to the other actors.
Actors sitting in the audience isn’t entirely new, but actors sitting in the audience watching a play within a play is a satisfying touch, the lox on the bagel, a tangy selection from a director's smorgasbord.
Linda Chalmer Zemel teaches in the Communication Department at SUNY Buffalo State College. She also writes the Buffalo Alternative Medicine column for Examiner.com.
Contact Linda at firstname.lastname@example.org