“Puzzle the Will” at the Midtown International Theatre Festival at the Davenport Theatre (Closed Sunday August 2, 2015)

Adapted from William Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” by Lauretta Pope
Directed by Lauretta Pope
Reviewed by David Roberts
Theatre Reviews Limited

“Who would fardels bear,/To grunt and sweat under a weary life,/But that the dread of something after death,/The undiscovered country, from whose bourn/No traveller returns, puzzles the will,/And makes us rather bear those ills we have/Than fly to others that we know not of?” – William Shakespeare, “Hamlet,” Act III, Scene I

“Puzzle the Will” (part of Hamlet’s epic soliloquy in the first scene of Act III) is a production of the Hamlet Collective and gives audiences the opportunity to experience William Shakespeare’s “The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark” and its characters in a new and quite satisfying way. Lauretta Pope’s adaptation – according to the Collective’s mission statement – “reassembles Shakespeare’s tale like a puzzle, strategically jumping between sections, juxtaposing some scenes and deconstructing others.”

This interesting and successful adaptation begins with the closing scene of “Hamlet” with bodies everywhere and a brief and comedic sob session followed by raucous belly-laughter as the cast gets up on its feet to literally re-boot the play (the clue to fasten the seatbelts for the glorious bumpy ride that follows). This is not your Senior Year “Hamlet.” Ms. Pope “scatters” scenes from “Hamlet” on the stage like storyboards for a new dramatic television series proving that “Hamlet” is “Hamlet” no matter in what order it is read or seen.

The ensemble cast is uniformly effective as they move into and out of their various roles. What this adaptation proves is that it is Shakespeare’s words that triumph (“So long lives this, and this gives life to thee,” Sonnet 18) and transcend all retellings, adaptations, modernizations, and revivals. Ms. Pope is particularly effective in her role as Hamlet and is to be commended on her performance and her adaptation of the Bard’s brilliant tragedy. The gender-bending in her adaptation proves again the resilience and continued relevance of Shakespeare’s works. Equally outstanding is Keith Chandler’s gender bending portrayal of Ophelia (one of the best I’ve seen) and his comedic portrayal (with co-digger Caroline Gombe) of the second gravedigger – harmonica and all!

Handled particularly well are the following scenes: the “Ghost” scene in Act I, Scenes IV and V; Ophelia’s madness in Act IV, Scene V; Hamlet’s scenes with Polonius (Caroline Gombe) and the Players, Act II, Scene II; Hamlet’s Scene with Ophelia in Act III, Scenes I and II; Hamlet’s scene observing Claudius (Stephen Hu) at prayer in Act III, Scene III; Hamlet’s scene with Gertrude (Lyn Kagen) in her chamber in Act III, Scene IV; and Hamlet’s soliloquy in Act III, Scene I which the Collective uses to end its adaptation.

Not everything about “Puzzle the Will” works as well as it might. It was difficult at times to hear Lyn Kagen (Gertrude, et al.) and Stephen Hu (Claudius, et al.). Caroline Gombe clearly understood the character of Polonius and her portrayal was exceptional; however, she, too, faded out as the play progressed. A simple observation: the cast needs to be mindful of the playing space and its acoustics.

This is a “Hamlet” well worth the visit during its MITF run. Here’s to more of Lauretta Pope’s adaptations!