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BWW Reviews: Classical Theatre Company's Edward Snowden Inspired HAMLET Works

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BWW Reviews: Classical Theatre Company's Edward Snowden Inspired HAMLET WorksEven after interviewing Classical Theatre Company's Artistic Director and Director of William Shakespeare's HAMLET JJ Johnston, I was highly skeptical about this production. HAMLET set in the post September 11th world with inspiration from Edward Snowden sounded like a gaggle of confused metaphors looking for destruction. For whatever reason, I couldn't wrap my head around this vision for the piece. Walking into the theatre didn't allay those concerns. The set looks more like a modern prison than a castle, with stark grays, dull blues, and a splash of orange in its color palette. Surveillance cameras are positioned along the top of the structure. There are corrugated Plexiglass windows, rivets, rust, and fencing to be seen as well. "Denmark's a prison," says Hamlet to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in Act II, Scene 2 of the play, and Jodi Bobrovsky's set design nailed that on a literal level.

Soon, the lights dimmed and the actors took the stage. The theme of constant and invasive surveillance was deftly brought to the forefront by JJ Johnston's direction. He opens the show with a man observing a screen, presumably attached to any number of surveillance cameras. It becomes instantly clear that if something is truly rotten in the state of Denmark, someone attached to the government will see it and know about. The connections to NSA and Edward Snowden materialized before my eyes, and that's when this extremely contemporized approach to HAMLET clicked for me. JJ Johnston's staging and direction capture the loss of privacy Hamlet faces. As he struggles with the death (well, murder) of his father and his uncle marrying his mother before she had a chance to grieve, it seems all eyes are on Hamlet. Everyone is watching him and minding to his business. He cannot escape surveillance. He has no privacy, and, for this production, that appears to be the jumping off point for both his feigned madness and actual insanity. All of the familiar scenes play out. The audience mouth along to the famous lines from the show, and the production ends sans Fortinbras. We are left with Hamlet telling Horatio not to commit suicide in light of the tragedy he has just seen, but to share Hamlet's story. However, Denmark is left without a ruler and in a state of disillusioned despair, adding some resonating gravitas to the Edward Snowden inspiration, as many the world over are still conflicted and unable to decide how they feel about his actions.

Matthew Keenan's Hamlet naturally carries the production. As an actor he paces himself well with the marathon role. Appearing on stage for a majority of the production, he handles Hamlet's arc well, moving the troubled prince from anger to misery. Matthew Keenan exposes Hamlet's inner turmoil as he struggles with revenging his father's poisoning. He is quizzical and questioning, seeking proof of what the ghost has told him. He rails against the loss of his privacy and is enraged each time he finds Polonius spying on him, adding some hefty weight to his performance in Act III, Scene I (the "Get thee to a nunnery" scene). As the line between Hamlet's fake insanity and real madness blurs, he capably delivers Hamlet's spiral downward, affecting the hearts of the audience, which allows his death to be a heartbreaking tragic waste.

Claudius, as played by Rutherford Cravens, is everything audiences need the character to be. He is detestable, authoritative, and a smidge redeemable. JJ Johnston ends his first act with Act III, Scene 3, where Claudius prays and reveals his dastardly deeds. We see a man ruined by his own ambition and being consumed by the bad choices he has made. In fact, his guilt is so strong he announces that he is unable to pray sincerely. Of course, Claudius' redemption doesn't last long. He doesn't hand over the throne to Hamlet; instead, he tries to have the youth killed in England. Rutherford Cravens powerfully brings to life Claudius' wickedness, making his visceral and gut wrenching death scene (kudos here to JJ Johnston and Fight Director Luke Fedell) as satiating as it macabre.

BWW Reviews: Classical Theatre Company's Edward Snowden Inspired HAMLET WorksAs Ophelia, Joanna Hubbard is sweetly innocent and naïve until she is told by Hamlet to give up on life and live out the remainder of her days in a convent. Becoming a pawn in Polonius' game to find out what is troubling the prince of Denmark weighs heavily on her and brings her into her own madness. From Joanna Hubbard we see two distinctly different Ophelia's, the unspotted virgin and the woman made crazy by a love that is seemingly unrequited.

Additionally, Christianne Mays' Gertrude is nurturing and appears legitimately concerned about her son, Ralph Ehntholt's Polonius is nicely meddlesome, Dan Geist's Laertes is loyal to his family, and Jarred Tettey's Horatio is keenly loyal to Hamlet.

Giving the production a worldly feeling, but confusing familial relationships is the actors speaking in their normal everyday accents. Matthew Keenan's Dublin brogue and Amy Garner Buchanan's Australian accent are both noticeably different from the remainder of the casts' own speaking. It's not wholly distracting from the plot or the power of William Shakespeare's words, it just leaves the audience questioning why Hamlet doesn't speak more like his mother.

Lighting Design by David Gipson appears minimal, but has some tricky cues built into it. The way it projects shadows as Hamlet experiences the ghost of his father is fascinating. Likewise, the gentle transitions between how scenes are lit works more like smooth film edits as opposed to traditional staged scene transitions.

Classical Theatre Company's production of HAMLET surprised me. I entered the venue expecting the worst and left pleasantly surprised at how well this vision worked for the play. Yes, you will see modern clothing. Yes, you will see guns. Yes, they use rapiers in the final scene. Remember, both Laertes and Hamlet have trained in fencing, just like the elite still do these days. Yes, this approach is different. Yes, it is entertaining. Yes, it works.

HAMLET, produced by Classical Theatre Company, plays at the Barnevelder Movement/Arts Complex, 2201 Preston Street, Houston, 77003 now through September 29, 2013. Performances are Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 8:00pm, Sundays at 2:30pm, and Monday, September 16 at 8:00pm. For more information and tickets, please visit http://classicaltheatre.org or call (713) 963-9665.

Photos by Pin Lim. Courtesy of Classical Theatre Company.

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BWW Reviews: Classical Theatre Company's Edward Snowden Inspired HAMLET Works
Matthew Keenan as Hamlet.

BWW Reviews: Classical Theatre Company's Edward Snowden Inspired HAMLET Works
Joanna Hubbard as Ophelia.

BWW Reviews: Classical Theatre Company's Edward Snowden Inspired HAMLET Works
Joanna Hubbard as Ophelia, Dain Geist as Laertes, Rutherford Cravens as Claudius, and Christianne Mays as Gertrude.

BWW Reviews: Classical Theatre Company's Edward Snowden Inspired HAMLET Works
Dain Geist as Laertes and Rutherford Cravens as Claudius.

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