NOTE: This review contains no mention, other than
the credit at the top, of Galt MacDermot's music.
HAMLET, revival of William Shakespeare's play.
Staged by David Mitchell;
costumes by Theoni V. Aldredge; Lighting by Lawrence Metzier;
music by Galt MacDermot; musical director John Morris; choreography by
George and Ethel Martin; stage manager John Saunders Branon. Presented by
New York Shakespeare Festival Mobile Theater, produced by Joseph Papp;
artistic director Gerald Freeman; associate producer Bernard Gerston. At
parks and playgrounds throughout the city.
Joseph Papp's latest variation on Hamlet is an interracial political comedy set in what seems to be Emperor Jones territory. As long as it is faithful to this conception, the Mobile theater production is quite interesting.
Cleavon Little, who played the insinuating frogman in "Scuba Duba", is a black, lithe, monomaniacal hamlet, scheming to over throw his white step-father, who, as played by Ralph Waite, looks like a cross between Fidel Castro and the Late Late Show's Barton MacLane. In this context, too, Anita Dangler is a provocative Queen Gertrude, and aging red-haired beauty, who probably once hustled in a Havana bar and who now, most likely, tipples behind the Citadel arras.
Unfortunately, however, Shakespeare was not writing about either Caribbean politics or biracial societies, nor did he write the outline for an absurdist comedy, which is the way this Hamlet winds up. The production, which had its first free performance in Washington Square Park Tuesday night, will be playing in other parks around the city for the next four weeks.
I did not see Mr. Papp's pop version of Hamlet that infuriated some members of the Board of Education last winter and was found incompetent by some of the critics. It would seem, however, that while this new production has retained many of the effects that caused so much controversy at the Public theater, they have been toned down considerably. The text, which runs 90 minutes, would seem to be the same, bearing as much relation to the original Shakespeare as cole slaw bears to cabbage.
There are times when this production does exhibit its own eerie, contemporary charm. Nancy Priddy plays Ophelia as a sort of wanton Little Eva, rocking and rolling all over the castle while Old Polonius remains convinced of her chastity. When Hamlet delivers his "Oh what a piece of work is man" speech, it is done as a revivalist sermon, with Rosencraft and Gilderstone (originally, of course Rosencranz and Gildenstern) giving the responses ("Yeah, man!", "Uh-huh!" etc.)
For the most part, however, the show is played for gratuitous laughs. For no reason whatsoever, Horatio slugs Claudius with a cream pie. When Polonius asks Hamlet what he reads, the answer is "Ebony, baby." It sounds like one of those not so very bold television parodies. The pay-off speech comes near the end when Claudius, dressed as a New York Policeman, yells at the gravedigger: "Don't give me any of that Shakespeare crap!"
Just why Claudius should be in the graveyard, reacting to a speech that should have been addressed to Hamlet, is not a very major text alteration under the circumstances. The meaning of the outburst, however, seems clear. It is Mr. Papp's desperate declaration that he can be "Hair-hip" and anti-intellectual. The audience laughed - rather guiltily and masochistically, like white onlookers at a Black Panther meeting.
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