Hamlet Max 2014 FringeHamlet Max may be co-presented at the 2014 Hollywood Fringe Festival by Schkapf and Sacred Fools Theater, but this is Jacob Sidney’s project all the way. He not only has adapted the material from Shakespeare’s Hamlet but also serves as producer, director, and lead actor.

The press materials highlight that the adaptation’s source material is not the more common First Folio but instead the earlier Second Quarto. However, since the adaptation takes Shakespeare’s longest play and squeezes it down to a taut, intermissionless 90 minutes (claimed, though opening night clocked in more like 100 minutes), any differing results created by choice of source text end up nuanced at best. Sidney’s adaptation is a straight ahead affair with all the key greatest-hit quotes and speeches (and there are many!) getting their due. An intriguing post-apocalyptic world conceit that opens the play ultimately seems arbitrary as it doesn’t inform any subsequent choices in story, costumes, or props which are presented as they would have been in Shakespeare’s time.

Hamlet Max’s visual presentation is the most unique quality of this production. Using projections of original artwork by Hillary Bauman (which were then subtlety animated by Chris Hutchings), Sidney turns the entire play into a living graphic novel. The tonal palette of both the projections and costumes is the sort of muted grayscale one would find in such a work, the only exceptions being Hamlet’s red-and-white hair (dyed in the pattern of the Danish flag), a red Denmark jacket (worn by Ophelia), and some on-screen red blood (a staple for any Shakespearean tragedy). This visual style is very effective although incessant whispering between members of the associated AV crew marred some of its impact. The projections are given a further emotional depth from a superb sound design by Martin Carrillo and original music by Mark Nichols.

The cast remains onstage throughout, with non-performing members seated on either side of the large projection screen. Matt Henerson as Polonius steals his scenes with both a natural delivery and a fine sense of comedy. Other ensemble standouts include Corryn Cummins’ poignant portrayal of a delirious Ophelia singing her heart out and Casey McKinnon’s delicately comic, pixie-like Osric. (Interestingly, Sidney uses the First Folio name “Osric” when the Second Quarto source material identifies the character as “Ostricke.”) Andy Hirsch (Horatio), Kellie Matteson (Laertes), Kathy Bell Denton (Gertrude) and Jonathan Goldstein (pulling ironic double-duty as both Claudius and the voice of the Ghost) round out the ensemble.

Those not already intimately familiar with the original material may find this adapted version tougher going. Rather than speaking to the audience, Sidney’s Hamlet “thinks” his famous interior dialogue: it is projected on-screen, word-for-word, while a recording of Sidney recites along. This artistic choice reduces the actor to merely staring at the audience during these key speeches thus robbing the famous words of their full emotional power. Even more problematic is the tendency for some of the actors, particularly Sidney, to shout as the dramatic tension rises. The Bard is nothing if not his words but the shouting, combined with the acoustically-live cinder block walls of the theater, muddles the iambs, particularly during key scenes. This sort of thing begs the question “Where was the director during rehearsals?” only to realize that, alas, he was there onstage the entire time.

Hamlet Max plays at the Schkapf during the 2014 Hollywood Fringe Festival. More information at http://hff14.org/1658

Other 2014 Hollywood Fringe Festival reviews:
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Originally published June 16, 2014 in Bitter Lemons.