It was the furled umbrella leaning against the metallic cafe chair that piqued my interest upon entering Main Street Theater for Guy Roberts' one-man Hamlet. What's this doing here? A piece of black fabric lies on the stage floor. Three water bottles are placed around the stage. Not surprising to see the bottles; this is Hamlet, you know, and it's a demanding role. Hydration is necessary.
In a lively twist, this Hamlet, adapted, directed, and starring Guy Roberts – artistic director of Prague Shakespeare Company and one of our favorite actors – is a pared down version of the world's most famous play. Technically, this is known as a monopolylogue (“one man, many characters”), popularized by Charles Dickens when he performed his very lucrative public readings of A Christmas Carol in the late nineteenth century. Nowadays this grand stage tradition is called the more pedestrian “solo show,” and has functioned well for Anna Deavere Smith in Twilight Los Angles, 1992 and Lily Tomlim's Tony-winner The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe. The genre has lost none of its charm, nor its ability to showcase the lone actor in all his/her versatility, stage presence, and star wattage. It's a workout, for sure, that's why the water bottles.
Although he assays many roles, the scenes Roberts has chosen are only those in which the character of the Prince of Denmark appears. In a little less than 90 minutes, the Bard's drama is condensed as thick as a can of Campbell's soup. Cleverly, it's all here – well, the bones are here and nicely fleshed out. Since this is Shakespeare, the bones are mighty tasty. It's a most satisfying meal.
A two-time Houston Theater Award winner (Honorary Houstonian and Best Actor for An Iliad), Roberts lives his Shakespeare. He makes even the most knotty phrases understandable and easy on the ears. He breathes such fresh life into the classic that, in his capable hands, the drama becomes both contemporary and timeless. All 17 characters are deliciously personalized, and the minimal staging is stirring in execution. When King Claudius holds court in the first scene to introduce us to his new queen, his murdered brother's wife Gertrude, it's staged as a press conference with flashbulbs and mob cheers. Wily politician Claudius waits for his applause lines. (Praise to sound designer Eric Sammons for thoughtful effects, like Ophelia's entrance wisp of glockenspiel. It's just the right touch of ethereal fragility.)
His Gravedigger is a comic cross between a Brooklyn longshoreman and Cockney flower seller. Deceptive former friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, whose murderous plot will be ironically turned against them, are depicted like clueless college jocks. The Ghost of Hamlet's father is amplified and eerie. I can't be sure, but I assume Roberts recorded the voice and lowered the timbre. Doddering Polonius, befuddled father of Ophelia, is stooped and faltering. The umbrella belongs to him. He uses it as a cane. In Gertrude's cabinet, it becomes the arras behind which the old man hides during the confrontation scene between son and mother, and then, behind which he's slain.
But best of all, of course, is Roberts' Hamlet. Athletic like Olivier, brooding as a beat poet like Burton, and intellectually conflicted like Gielgud, Roberts seems to go mad because of his inaction and inability to rid himself of guilt over his father's murder. He puts on an antic air, but it slowly consumes him. The great monologues are deftly handled, redolent of meaning and psychology. He stops “To be...” and goads the audience to complete the famous line, making us complicit in his longing for death and terribly sympathetic to his plight. He plays it cool in his black long-sleeved tee and jeans, a modern guy out of step with his time.
No matter how well-known Hamlet is, nor how many times we've seen it, Roberts' decoction still surprises with the play's fragrant music, it's startling insight, it's absolute beauty of phrase, its rich characterizations. Under Robert's masterful handling, 90minutes doesn't seem long enough for this Dane's tragic fail.
Performances continue through January 19 at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays; and 3 p.m Sundays at Main Street Theater - Rice Village, 2540 Times. For information, call 713-524-6706 or visit mainstreettheater.com. $36-$55.
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