April 10, 2003

Putting it Together

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The Cornell Schwartz Center for the Performing Arts’ production of Hamlet will soon be unveiled as it draws nearer to its opening night of April 24th. Audiences should definitely expect to see the dark themes of intrigue, betrayal, and murder play out in dramatic fashion, all expressed through the eloquence of true Shakespearean verse. However, they shouldn’t expect to see them evoked in a traditional periodic setting that marks the Hamlet performances of yesteryear. A minimalist, postmodernist approach will drive the production, stripping the play down to its bare essentials to allow for an intense engaging of the viewer with the dramatic elements.

The distinctly postmodernist themes of deconstructing traditionally held concepts of unity and time allow for an eclectic grouping of different elements. Professor Bruce Levitt, who is directing the play, drew upon the spirit of Cirque du Soleil, a Quebecois traveling troupe characterized by its stunningly otherworldly visuals, theatrical feats, and diverse performers, to achieve this effect. Like Cirque du Soleil, which radiates its dynamic energy in the span of a single space, Hamlet will also have at its core a unifying design in which imagistic elements carried into the performative space will evoke a creative energy.

Levitt’s distinctively postmodernist production is most visible in the uncertainty shrouding the time and setting of the play. This ambiguity allows for a kind of artistic freedom in which the director and performers are not restricted to the meticulous adherence to the accuracies of a certain time period as to avoid the fallacy of anachronism. Ben Williams ’03, who will be playing the title role, expressed the sentiment that there is a kind of liberation in which a free space allows for the real power of the play and its themes to come through. “It gives more credence to the language,” Williams said, as well as allowing for the cast to tell the story again more on its own and focus on the differences they may bring to it.

The idea of an unhindered minimalism directing the attention more on the actors, the words, and the story is evident in the simplicity of the set and stage. The performances will take place not on the typical flat and expansive stage, but on a rake, a raised and slanted platform with a comparatively smaller area. Despite its limited space and difficult gauging of depth perception, the rake has the enormous dramatic potential of perceptually arranging the characters and backdrops in a three-dimensional configuration that thrusts everything to the viewer’s visual forefront.

However simple the set may be, definitely count on the play’s characteristic action-packed violence to be maximized. Levitt noted that it will be a challenge to make the play’s violence credible to the audience, for the potential to exploit violence in theater is not as great as in film. To fully do justice to the fight scenes fueling the exciting action of Hamlet, the actors have been training with stage manager Jen Nelson on the proper techniques of basic fight moves in combat class. The final product is quite impressive, executed with precision and authenticity. The action won’t be just limited to the boys; equal opportunity will allow for Ophelia to join the men in the sparring spirit as well. Levitt added that the violent moments will not be exploited or overdone, and there certainly will be unexpected moments of violence in store for the audience.

The most noteworthy distinction differentiating this production of Hamlet from many others is a scene involving Hamlet in the nude. “The [nudity] highlights the absolute poverty of Hamlet’s position,” Levitt said, adding that it seemed appropriate to do this as to emphasize the complete vulnerability of Hamlet’s state upon killing a man and dealing with the burden of murder and revenge solely by himself. Williams also agreed that the nakedness depicts an “absolute vulnerability,” in which he is totally “at the mercy of the elements” and thus the creative liberty will be justified.

More of Hamlet’s artistic quirks carry on over to other production aspects as well, especially in the sketches of the costumes. The costumes were designed in collaboration with Levitt and resident designer Sarah Bernstein. Once again, the distinctive eclecticism is evident in the clothing. A variety of different style influences were drawn upon, ranging from the classical elegance of Ralph Lauren Polo to the youthful trends of fashionable clothier Arden B. Some dresses had a corseted bodice, while others will pulled from a stash of old ’80s prom dresses. Men’s dress followed the same pattern, extending from a style spectrum of regal aristocratic jackets fashioned after those worn in the film Kate & Leopold to classic white shirts and tweed coasts. Distinctive as the styles may be, they are nevertheless linked in this Hamlet’s characteristic all-encompassing of different elements.

After several weeks of intensive training, rehearsing, and collective creative collaborations, Hamlet is ready to take the stage and bring to the Cornell community its distinctive rendition of the Bard’s famous play. It should be interesting to see how much of the actors’ own personal interpretations come through, how much will stay true to the text, and how much of Levitt’s directing vision will permeate through the performances. Most likely the performative magic of giving oneself over to the words of Shakespeare and working with them to achieve a certain kind of ease will allow for a natural flow of performative creative energy to come from all the players. Truly, the magic of the “play within a play” theme that drives Hamlet will shine through, in which a cast of actors, assistants, directors, and crew members collectively work together to produce a memorable work of art.

Archived article by Sherry Jun