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'Hamlet' a pleasure to watch

By Donald Munro
The Fresno Beehive [online], Tuesday, April 17, 2012 10:55 AM
The Fresno Bee [print], Friday, April 20, 2012

I've seen "Hamlet" many times on both stage and screen, but rarely have I felt as intimately connected to the material as I did opening night of The New Ensemble's scrappy and invigorating production of
the classic at the Broken Leg Stage. (It continues through April 28.)

Looking for fancy sets, sumptuous costumes, breathtaking lighting design? You won't find any of that in this space, which is configured to seat just 35 audience members. We're talking about essentially a bare stage with a few minimalist trappings. (The curtain behind which Polonius meets his end is the most dominant bit of scenery.) But there's a happy trade-off. What you get in this tiny theater is a raw, claustrophobic view of Shakespeare's classic tale.

Pictured: Brooke Aiello (Hamlet) and Haley White (Ophelia).
(Bee photo by Craig Kohlruss)

In that context, director Heather Parish's spiciest production decision -- casting local Shakespeare veteran Brooke Aiello as Hamlet, giving us the title character played by a woman as a woman -- takes on even greater prominence. While the second part of the play post-intermission loses a little of the tight, taut zing of the first, overall it's a sturdy and compelling ride.

Parish's concept for the show was influenced by the space itself and what she calls "gender-fluid casting." (Horatio and Bernardo are played by women as well.) The premise: a post-apocalyptic future setting in which people have been driven underground in a world
where the surface of the earth is scorched from the sun's radiation. Women hold much of the power in this matriarchal society, and Hamlet as a woman is heir to her mother's throne.

No non-traditional presentation of Shakespeare can be 100% airtight in terms of completely meshing with the material, but this one works quite well for me. I like the world created here: Shakespeare's text fits relatively well into its crevices. And Aiello's urban, layered costumes have a nice rag-tag feel (but slightly upscale, as befitting a society's movers and shakers). Most important is the feeling of confinement sparked by both the setting and tone of the production, which mirrors the oft-analyzed state of mind of Hamlet, who feels as if everything is closing in on her.

Aiello is a live wire of a Hamlet, playing the character with a slightly boisterous, hard-charging feel that at times is almost petulant. ("It is very cold," she grouses in the early scene in which she awaits for her ghostly father to appear, and you can sense a vestigial teen-age whiny streak.) At other times she's full of bluster, her anger boiling over and her speeches uttered at full throttle. (There were moments in the early scenes when the performance space is simply too small for the bigness of Aiello's portrayal; she could dial back a little on the intensity.)

All this builds up to a spine-tingling "Get thee to a nunnery" encounter with Ophelia (Haley White in an intriguingly brittle performance). Aiello delivers the line for the first time with a scathing softness, then leads up to a final explosive declaration. The lesbian relationship between Hamlet and Ophelia seems to make the moment even more caustic, as if only a woman can manage to wound another with such precision.

The cast is strong and well-prepared. Particular favorites of mine: Gabriela Lawson as a fiery Horatio, David P. Otero as a tedious Polonius, and Jaguar Bennett as a droll Claudius.

And then there's Nate Butler in three different roles: Old Hamlet's Ghost, the Player King and the Gravedigger. Butler makes an absolutely smashing Ghost in his black-velvet, hooded robe, his long
blond hair spilling forward. If a ghost were to be found slinking about an apocalyptic underground warren of deceit and intrigue, this would be the one. Like the rest of this "Hamlet," he's a little creepy -- and a pleasure to watch.

Brooke Aiello as Hamlet in The New Ensemble's production of "Hamlet"
(l-r) Nate Butler (The King's Ghost), Jaguar Bennett (Claudius), Brooke Aiello (Hamlet), Kristin Lyn Crase (Gertrude) and Haley White (Ophelia).
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