Kicking the Bard out of the museum
Theater Galatea’s four-actor production of Hamlet is an unpretentious take on the Shakespeare classic
From across a busy street in Paris' 10th Arrondissement, P. Joshua Laskey could tell that the performers were good, mostly because they were surrounded by a sizable audience—including a group of toddlers who were paying close attention.
It’s not that uncommon to see street performers in Paris, but even though he and his wife, Jessica Goldman Laskey, were out of earshot and speak less than perfect French, he could tell “in two seconds” the troupe was doing Hamlet.
“Because I have a deep, spiritual connection to Hamlet,” Laskey explained in a recent interview with SN&R.
And that’s why he turned to Goldman Laskey and said, “We need to cross the street.”
Goldman Laskey remembers the performers as taking a broad, physical approach to the play—“clowning without mugging” in a way that made it intelligible both to preschoolers and visiting Americans. There were also minimal props and only four performers.
“They had a chalkboard with the characters’ names on it, and every time someone died, they’d cross the name off the chalkboard,” she said.
But what really caught the attention of the pair was how this abbreviated production of the play—which is probably, along with Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare’s best-known work—managed to capture the attention of such a range of audience members.
“The toddlers were just enrapt,” said Goldman Laskey.
“They’re riveted to this kid, this 20-something kid, who’s up there speaking in this—I assume—very poetic French,” said Laskey. “This is the kind of theater that we all aspire to. I really can’t understand the words very well, but I understand the emotions, and these little kids didn’t move while this was going on.”
Typically, even a shortened version of Hamlet runs more than three hours, and the play calls for as many as 32 actors—though usually some doubling does occur in roles. There are 11 characters with speaking roles, though, so it’s not a small show to mount, even with a minimal set.
The couple, who have done extensive work in theater in the Sacramento area as actors and directors—and, in Laskey’s case, also as a playwright—looked up the troupe that had done the production.
“Their motto is, roughly translated, ’A tragedy for comedians in unexpected places,’” said Laskey. “They perform all over Paris.”
Now, the couple’s production group, Theater Galatea, is tackling its own take on Hamlet that’s rooted in that street show they witnessed in the 10th Arrondissement.
Laskey’s adaptation of Hamlet, which opens on April 18, is about half the length of the original play and written for four actors. But, while the theater company won’t be heading out to any street corners just yet, it has been joined by Sacramento actors Blair Leatherwood and Kellie Yvonne Raines for a production that’s expected to run about two hours, with an emphasis on clarity, story and emotion.
“Too often, people think good Shakespeare means it’s a museum piece,” said Laskey.
That’s definitely not the case, he said. He described seeing Julius Caesar at Shakespeare’s Globe theater in London.
“When Mark Antony came out to bury Caesar, not to praise him, he literally spoke to the third level [of the theater] where the schoolchildren were,” said Laskey. “He got them chanting and screaming and yelling, just like he was orating to a crowd at Julius Caesar’s funeral.”
On the other hand, Laskey found a production of Antony and Cleopatra by England’s Royal Shakespeare Company profoundly disappointing.
“I’m not saying Antony and Cleopatra is always the height of excitement, but it was so declamatory,” he said, referring to that type of Shakespearean production that places all the weight on the poetic language.
The company seemed to be curating a display rather than performing to entertain, Laskey said.
So the pair—and their collaborators, Leatherwood and Raines—are aiming for an understandable and emotionally engaging production.
“Yes, [Hamlet is] beautiful. Yes, it rhymes sometimes. Yes, it has this really cool rhythm,” said Goldman Laskey. “But what we keep coming back to and what keeps improving it, rehearsal after rehearsal after rehearsal, is every time, somebody gets clearer on what they’re saying and doing.”
This, she said, is key to “really doing Shakespeare justice.”
“Everybody will understand what we’re talking about and what’s happening, and they’re not going to get lost in this cacophony of unfamiliar words,” she said. “They’ll think, ’What a good story!’”
And going for that kind of audience engagement means trimming things down—or perhaps presenting them in a slightly different way.
Brian Harrower, who has adapted, directed and produced a number of Shakespeare’s plays—including the successful zombie-apocalypse version of Henry V at Big Idea Theatre—and was the dramaturge for the recent production of Romeo and Juliet at the Sacramento Theatre Company, certainly agrees with the necessity of adapting the Bard’s plays for a contemporary audience.
“The most common reason for cuts is time management, as unromantic as that sounds,” Harrower said. “Modern audiences aren’t ready for a three-and-a-half hour show.”
But the primary reason to make changes to the classics is to provide context, he said, noting that Shakespeare was writing for his time. His plays have things that are outside our understanding, so providing context in an adaptation is “an extra layer that brings it back for our audiences to something they can understand and care about.”
In Theater Galatea’s version, for example, Hamlet’s famous speech about how actors should perform and his reminiscences of Yorick, the court jester—while holding his skull, no less—have had to go for the most basic reasons: time, and having only four actors.
But those elements are retained in the play in a slightly different way, one that will no doubt surprise and delight audience members familiar with them.
As for the idea of going to see Hamlet, Laskey has some advice.
“Don’t be afraid of the name ’Hamlet,’ because you have more in common with him than you think,” he said. “You’ve gone through stuff that you didn’t understand, you’ve tried to make the right choice, you’ve had complicated parental and romantic relationships.”
And, Goldman Laskey said, she hopes the audience won’t let the iconic status of the play close them off to the experience.
“The play’s been done so many times, and everybody knows the story,” she said. “But that’s what makes plays into museum pieces, when everyone knows what’s coming.”
Their goal is to get the audience to forget that for a couple of hours, and realize that the characters don’t know what’s going to happen to them.
“Hamlet, Laertes, all of them, are figuring it out as they go along,” said Laskey.
“Everyone has heard of Hamlet, and everybody’s got an opinion,” he said. “So doing something like Hamlet in a new way, say with four actors or a setting that people can relate to, is an effective way of shaking up expectations and, most importantly, getting people to pay attention in a new way to something they think they already know about.”
Ultimately, Goldman Laskey said, it’s a play.
“No matter what you do with it, it has to be entertainment.”