Modern dress seems almost de rigueur for Shakespeare productions these days-and understandably so. More than just a way of keeping wardrobe costs down, modern dress provides accessibility for audiences who may feel alienated by the archaic language. Modern dress also lends some authenticity, considering that in Shakespeare’s time, plays were performed in contemporary costume, regardless of historical setting.
When viewing such a “modernized” version of Shakespeare, it’s hard not to be struck with an initial sense of incongruity. Can we really accept an actor in 21st-century street clothes speaking in early-modern English? If the play is done well, as the powerful new City Lights production of Hamlet is, then we can accept it just as readily as we can accept actors talking to themselves in soliloquy.
Director Kit Wilder’s “updating” of Hamlet does more than stick the players in jeans and hoodies. The characters are all vaguely recognizable as modern archetypes. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, played by Adam Magill and Martin Gutfeldt, resemble two yuppies on the make. Male authority figures like Polonius (Jeff Kramer) are austere businessmen in suits and ties. However, in a postmodern nod to the productions of yesteryear, the play-within-a-play sequence uses faux-Elizabethan costumes and Renaissance music piped from a laptop computer.
What about the complex, ambiguous Prince of Denmark himself? Thomas Gorrebeeck eschews subtlety and emphasizes the crazier side of the character. Clearly unstable, with normal inhibitions slowly melting away, this Hamlet tends to gyrate suggestively against others, though during his scenes with Queen Gertrude (Kristin Brownstone), we are spared the strong Oedipal connotations that are sometimes interpolated into the play.
As Gorrebeeck veers between calm self-reflection and foam-spattered tirades, he leaves the viewer in a state of unease, with the sense that Hamlet could go completely off the rails at any moment. The stark lighting and eerie sound effects used to set the mood of Kronborg Castle add to this unsettling effect, and the atmosphere, more than a backdrop for the action, is a window into the mind of the disturbed prince. It also engulfs the victims of Hamlet’s vengeance. The hero’s madness seems to infect Sarah Moser’s anguished Ophelia like a disease, while Tom Gough’s strangely sympathetic Claudius grows increasingly desperate and violent.
All in all: a fresh and provocative take on Shakespeare’s brooding tragedy.