BWW Review: Shakespeare's Reflection on Humanity is Powerfully Human in Why Not Theatre's PRINCE HAMLET
A gender-bending, English and American Sign Language (ASL) bilingual production of Shakespeare's Hamlet may sound ambitious - but it plays as compellingly human. Maybe you're not familiar with the story. Maybe you've seen it a hundred times. Regardless, Why Not Theatre's PRINCE HAMLET will defy your expectations. Ravi Jain has adapted Shakespeare's most famous play in a way that is relevant and, as the title suggests, focuses more intimately on its protagonist's struggle to understand human nature.
PRINCE HAMLET shares the tragedy from Horatio's perspective. We begin at the end, with Horatio's, "So shall you hear of carnal, bloody and unnatural acts," establishing the production's integration of signing. Jain's skillful adaption mesmerizes, as the plot is reorganized - monologues artfully manipulated to feature interjected scenes of earlier action. Horatio narrates, moving within the story as it unfolds.
The incorporation of signing is striking. A recent Broadway production of Spring Awakening received rave reviews for its use of ASL; Jain takes this a step further. PRINCE HAMLET features a deaf performer not because the script calls for a deaf character, but because Dawn Jani Birley is sensational, and plays a Horatio who just happens to be deaf. The signing weaves brilliantly throughout Jain's production, forcing the audience to search for meaning in the unfamiliar - a theme which is central to Hamlet.
The play's themes are explored further in the all-encompassing, effortless unity of set (Lorenzo Savoini) and lighting design (Andre du Toit). Du Toit showcases light's versatile abilities to restrict and expand space. Savoini's set incorporates dirt scattered in piles across the stage, which, in my opinion, symbolizes the characters' unique tragic flaws. Ophelia is exempt from this symbolism, instead, using the dirt to throw judgement (in the form of flower metaphors) at each character's liability. This imagery is powerful, especially in the final scene when each character comes to rest on their respective heap.
Christine Horne plays an earnest, intelligent Hamlet. Gender becomes inconsequential in her portrayal of the pensive prince. Horne's Hamlet is hopeful in his plans for revenge, and devastated in his uncertainty. Her piercing eyes swell with tears, veins pulsing in her neck as her Hamlet strains to understand his mortality. Horne's Hamlet is truly of our generation - down to the amusing use of millennial vocal fry.
The entire cast is exceptional. Jeff Ho portrays a tender Ophelia; delicate in her madness. Her singing in Act 4, is withdrawn and haunting. Maria Vacratsis as Polonius is stoic and quite funny. Hannah Miller and Miriam Fernandes are inventive and refreshing as they take on multiple characters. As Laertes, Khadijah Roberts-Abdullah's initial cheery disposition transitions into rampant retribution. Karen Robinson and Rick Roberts have excellent chemistry as Queen Gertrude and King Claudius. They succeed in normalizing their incestuous union - the attraction between them is convincing.
Jain's direction shatters convention, without trying too hard. The incorporation of ASL challenges our perception of communication and makes us vulnerable to silence, which he proves, can rival speech in its ability to evoke emotion. He's created an unconstrained world where gender, ability and cultural background are immaterial. In a society of growing division, Jain's PRINCE HAMLET offers an honest and inclusive reflection of humanity.
Get thee to a performance! PRINCE HAMLET runs through April 29, 2017 at The Theatre Centre, 1115 Queen St. W, Toronto, ON. For more information and to purchase tickets, visit www.theatrewhynot.org
(photo credit: Bronwen Sharp)