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BWW Review: Trippingly On The Tongue: HAMLET In Original Pronunciation At Baltimore Shakespeare Factory


"To sum up: your father, whom you love, dies, you are his heir, you come back to find that hardly was the corpse cold before his young brother popped on to his throne and into his sheets, thereby offending both legal and natural practice. Now, why exactly you behaving in this extraordinary manner?"-- Rosencrantz in Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Dead

Is Hamlet mad or not? What is his moral duty? What service do we owe the dead, what service the living? Does honor and a sworn oath outweigh our own wishes and desires? Is he always an ass, or just going through a rough patch? What's the deal with Gertrude, and also Ophelia? To be or not to be?

Baltimore Shakespeare Factory delivers HAMLET, PRINCE OF DENMARK in Original Pronunciation with verve and depth while answering some important questions. BSF, dedicated to accuracy and education, presents one show a season in original dialect, a refreshing alternative to 'English Accent As Performed By Americans' customary in Shakespearian productions. The pre-show festivities, which I recommend, are in Original Pronunciation to attune your ear. Even so, arriving without the least notion of the plot in HAMLET may put one at a disadvantage regarding the subtleties and sub-plots of the story. The programme sketches the important plot points.

Original Pronunciation (referred to hereafter as OP), which sounds rather like Scottish or Irish accents to this hometown Hon, takes some getting used to, but the adjustment period is short. It's slightly garbled when spoken by the ghost, who wears a full mask and is therefore difficult to hear anyhow. This is the only bit of Costume Designer Kendra Shapanus's costuming to not earn full marks. The indicative garb of each player is simple enough, contemporary rather than Elizabethan, and in some cases extremely effective. Gertrude's silvery gown is majestic, and Hamlet all in black hip-hop-esque style is youthfully broody.

The show opens with Horatio's exposition regarding a land dispute between Norway (there) and Denmark (here), and the possibility of an armed invasion, which explains why there are guards on watch to observe a ghost. Horatio, played by Ethan Larsen, has an earnest likeability that endears him immediately to the audience, which is important, as he is the main through-line of the story.

I really like warm woody atmosphere of this venue and the thorough preparation of this company. The performance runs smoothly, minor onstage snafus managed unhurriedly with nary a frown. The characters connect with each other and the audience in an intimate, almost cozy, fashion, if such a term can be applied to tragedy. The church building home of BSF features a raised platform at the apse of the church; atop it stands a miniature Globe-inspired structure, consisting of a 2 story gazebo, elaborately painted 'heavens' tilted above the requisite balcony. The under part of the balcony is curtained, forming an "inner below" area that is backstage/onstage, perfect for characters to hide behind to eavesdrop or spy, and possibly be killed when they sneeze. The sound quality and acoustics in this space are particularly good, as the place clergypersons sermonize to worshippers ought naturally be designed for maximum auditory experience. Audience seating is on three sides of the stage. General admission permits audience members have the view they prefer.

The production is infused with humanity, sass, desperation, scheming, mistrust and Hamlet's character journey. Director Chris Cotterman weaves an active but not frenetic visual tale, with actors who very clearly understand their motivations and physicalizations, and are consistent in their delivery of the Original Pronunciation accent, as directed by Ann Turiano. Terrance Fleming as Hamlet is full of piss and vinegar, punctuated by occasional gallows or potty humor. His sarcasm and angst are absolutely age- and character- appropriate. Really, Fleming is quite a wonderful Hamlet. His asides seem downright chatty as this BSF freshman relates comfortably to the audience filling theater pews. It's a responsive and invested group, language nerds like me, I imagine. Ethan Larsen's quiet restrained depiction of Horatio creates a balancing foil to Hamlet's bombast, and his steadfast but slightly puzzled devotion to Hamlet seems enviable rather than silly. Rachel Manu, who plays Ophelia, moves with dancer's grace, demonstrates an extreme level of trust in her castmates, has a sweet singing voice and is lovely to watch.

Intermission arrives: some folk retire to the restroom, some refill wine, meade, beer or soda and snacks (cash or credit) available in the vestibule, and the rest remain in their spots to enjoy the halftime show, which is fun, irreverent, thematic and a terrific contrast to the scripted performance. You might forego a puff break in favor of the interactive musical revelries.

The graveyard sequence, which opens full of puns and closes with a sad burial, is humorous, tense and touching. The rapier fight in the final act is exciting and well choreographed by Fight Director Tegan Williams. Some themes, despite my familiarity with HAMLET (it's my favorite) strike me freshly, the innate misogyny of the play, Hamlet's eventual reconciliation to the idea of fate and purpose, and the odd role played by Fortinbras among them. The death sequences of each character in the final scene are separated enough to make them distinct events, none overdone, and the concluding moments are heartbreakingly, satisfyingly excellent. This is a fine, fine production of HAMLET.

Baltimore Shakespeare Factory's home neighborhood of Hamden isn't known for ease of parking. Fortunately, BSF has its own small lot, part of it down a bit of a hill. If you arrive early enough for the nearer spots, you won't be bored, as there's pre-show discussion (Saturdays) and entertainment. When you park, remember to stay out of the numbered spots in the lot; they are designated for the apartments next door; towing is likely.

Run time: two hours and a bit, with one intermission.

Next up for BSF is ROMEO AND JULIET June 28-July 21, then THE MERRY WIVES OF WINDSOR July 26-August 18.

Baltimore Shakespeare Factory's HAMLET plays through May 5, 2019

In the Great Hall Theater at St. Mary's Community Center

3900 Roland Avenue

Baltimore, MD 21211

Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00pm

Sundays at 4:00pm

Pre-show entertainment begins 30 minutes before showtime.

Free lecture given at 7pm each Saturday.

All performances end with a cast talk-back.

Photo: Ethan Larsen and Terrance Fleming as Horatio and Hamlet; photo by Will Kirk

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