Thursday, April 22, 2010

Watching Hamlet through a potted plant

The irony was not lost on me that the first free production of Shakespeare we’ve seen was staged in various spaces of the World Financial Center. This democratic and innovative approach meant that New York Classical Theatre’s Hamlet drew an audience of over 150 people, all of whom parked their tushes on various spots of the WFC’s well-polished floors, willingly heaving themselves up when directed to follow the actors to the next impromptu stage.

It was good that the play is so well known since the audience certainly provided its own distracting sideshow. Audience members shuffled along with Starbucks’ lattes or kids in tow, and one of my temporary neighbors brought sunflower seeds in a plastic bag which he shelled, rustled, and chewed throughout Hamlet’s encounter with his father’s ghost. Such intimacies forged a strong sense of community, asserting theater's animate and pertinent spirit, in a way that the internet never can.

Yet more meaningfully, the site of the performance blurred the lines between the theatrical world and the world we all inhabit. Which of course means including the unpleasant truths of The Gap and American Express. But such an approach also encompassed the gorgeous red sunlight that poured down equally on audience and actors alike, transforming all into glowing refractions in some larger play of mystery. The world and the play with its ghosts just down the street at the site of the World Trade Center, gave the seemingly random choice of location a surprising profundity which touched the realm of feeling more than that of thought. (Fortinbras echoes this when he bemoans: O proud Death,/ What feast is toward in thine eternal cell/ That thou so many princes at a shot/ So bloodily hast struck?“) As the play’s content tended towards death, so did the world around us darken. But when Hamlet (the masterful Justin Blanchard) delivered his peroration upon death, visitors in the WFC ascended on escalators out of sight to some celestial afterlife where, as Queen Gertrude (powerfully acted by Rita Rehn) says of Hamlet, we all “with the incorporal air do hold discourse.”

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