BWW Reviews: A Thrilling, First Quarto 'Hamlet' With Taffety Punk
What do you do with a talented company, itching to perform a classic play-but a play that has been so overdone that the prospect of seeing it yet again fills most critics with dread? In the case of Shakespeare's Hamlet, the most overdone play in the known universe, the beauty is that there are three different versions to choose from. Taffety Punk, with its growing reputation for new, invigorating treatments of Shakespeare, has chosen to climb the Everest that is Hamlet by using the oldest version-the so-called "First Quarto". Under the direction of Joel David Santner (who will shortly be moving to California for film school, a great loss) the company has proven yet again that when viewed with fresh eyes, Shakespeare is a limitless source of inspiration for artists and audiences alike. Although the company has a reputation for stand-out all female productions, Taffety Punk has invited a few men in the company to join the cast here (including Marcus Kyd in the title role), the performance is of a dependable, high quality that makes this a rare, intimate view of the Bard's work.
First, for the curious: a "Quarto" was a slim, pocket-sized book, which got its name from the fact that the pages on a traditional coffee-table-sized Folio were folded into a fourth of its size. In those days acting companies only published a Quarto edition of the script once it had tanked at the box office - the Elizabethan equivalent of residuals. The Quarto version of Hamlet chosen by Taffety Punk appeared in 1603, and was superseded the next year by a much longer, more poetic edition, known as the "Second Quarto". Because there are some glaring differences between these two our English professors have since dubbed the First Quarto "Bad" and the Second Quarto "Good" with a lot of trash-talk about how lousy the First Quarto is.
The distinction is hogwash, but at least it creates a controversy and of course controversy keeps Shakespeare in the news, doesn't it?
[A third version, the famous Folio edition-copies of which are housed at the nearby Folger-wouldn't come out until nearly two decades later; given the richness of the first two, frankly the Folio Hamlet is a bit of a disappointment.]
So, is the First Quarto different? Oh, yeah; a seasoned Shakespeare audience can't help but giggle at the awkward phrasing and Hollywood-style, action-film plot twists here, and the names for upwards of half the characters are either odd or oddly spelled. But Taffety Punk gives the lie to the notion that the First Quarto doesn't work as a performance text; what this rich production argues, in contrast to those boring profs, is that the First Quarto gives us a glimpse of Shakespeare's greatest play at a critical, early stage in its development-perhaps before the Bard had really done his magic? The language and plot twists seem pitched more to the beer-and-hazelnut crowd than the modern connoisseur, which should come as no surprise: the Globe Theatre was a for-profit business venture and had to rely on penny-wielding "groundlings" who stood around the stage, beer in hand, for its profit margins.
As always, the quality of the acting here is quite high, and in the intimate black-box of the Capital Hill Arts Workshop this makes for a thrilling evening of theatre, no matter what is on the menu. Kyd's Danish prince is a bit stiff at first; his first soliloquy (which begins here with "O that this too much griev'd and solid flesh would melt away") is delivered too quickly. Once he warms to the action, however, his Hamlet is dynamic and original as every Hamlet should be. One especially nice touch is the prince's taste for vandalism, writing graffiti on the walls of the theatre with hints of what is driving him mad.
With a cast of only seven, there is room for some creative role-distribution; an inspired choice has Esther Williamson, one of the more talented Shakespearians in town, double as Horatio and Ofelia (with a brief cameo as Voltemar thrown in for good measure). Her knowledge of the meter and her subtle delivery are a gift and truly wonderful to watch, from her Horatio's early tete-a-tetes with the Prince to her affecting "mad scene" as Ofelia. Teresa Castracane, another Taffety Punk regular, wins in just about all of the six (!) roles she is asked to play; as the Norwegian royal Fortinbrasse, she is given the valedictory lines that round out the play, and does so with great assurance. Dan Crane is perhaps most effective as the hot-headed Leartes, and his duel with Kyd's Hamlet (which he choreographed himself) is exciting to watch. Jessica Lefkow is every inch a queen as Gertred (yes, the names do spell differently, don't they?) and and Daniel Flint gives us a good, conniving King of Denmark (when he's not decked out as the Ghost).
Chris Curtis sets an appropriately paranoid tone with his lighting design, and Paulina Guerrero provides some interesting (if at times incomprehensible) choreographed sequences between scenes, which are performed to original music by local band Beauty Pill, whose return to the Washington music scene has been celebrated of late. Tessa Lew creates an eclectic, vaguely futuristic tone with some of her costuming; her get-up for the Ghost of Hamlet's Father is a bizarre mix of puffed shoulders, spandex and bottle-glasses (with nose guard thrown in for good measure), which reminds us that we are in very different territory indeed.
If this proves to be his final production in DC, Joel David Santner can leave us with the satisfaction of a job well done; he's taken the great reckoning of Hamlet, crammed it into a very little room, and given us an excellent night at the theatre.
Hamlet: The First Quarto plays April 30th-May 23rd at Capitol Hill Arts Workshop, 545 7th St SE, Washington, D.C. All tickets are $15 each; call 1-800-838-3006 or visit: http://tix.taffetypunk.com/.