To Watch or Not to Watch, That is Our Question

Design by Silvia Wang

Read a Letter to the Editor in response to this piece from former Herald Editor-in-Chief Leo Egger, TC ‘23.5 here.

Judges 15:15 is a column by Joshua Bolchover, SY ’25 and Judah Millen, PC ’24. The name of the column refers to the Old Testament passage in which Samson slays a thousand philistines with the jaw of an ass. Make of that what you will.

Running from November 1-4 in the Crescent Underground Theater, this new production of Shakespeare’s Hamlet does not earn the moniker “new.” It is in most ways a traditional version of the play: the script is lightly abridged, the costumes are vaguely period appropriate, and attempts at modernization are minimal.* 

When we thought about our approach to reviewing this play, we alighted upon two primary questions: Why Hamlet? and Which Hamlet? The answer to the first seems as though it may be answered by the unvarnished nature of the production and the fidelity to Shakespeare’s truly excellent work. It is a thrilling play that grips audiences across time and space. As one audience member told us after the show, it was an “exceptionally enjoyable evening.” We have no quarrels with this notion and found the cast and crew’s fidelity to the original to be charming. However, with such a conventional and classical production of the work, the bar set for the actors becomes incredibly high: Hamlet has been staged countless times, often with great success.

Among the cast, two actors stood out for the quality and charisma of their performances. Hamlet (Phil Schneider, TC ‘23.5) and Polonius (Leo Egger, TC ‘23.5) proved themselves to be excellent thespians capable  of professional quality work. Answering our second question, Mr. Schneider emphasized Hamlet’s fury. Spittle tumbling out of his mouth while he held a dagger to the neck of his father’s murderer and mother’s new husband Claudius, or veins in his neck bulging as he entreated Ophelia (Victoria Pekel, BF ’25) to leave him and go to a nunnery, this Hamlet was angry at the world and at himself and at nothing. Mr. Schneider wrested much emotion from the role and his paroxysms of rage were as believable as they were fluent. The actor is clearly familiar with Shakespeare’s meter and almost every line he delivered was not only easily discernible but deeply pleasurable. 

Mr. Egger’s interpretation of Polonius was the most impressive and innovative of the evening. At times his eyes vibrated with energy as he stood on stage wiping his brow with a large, white handkerchief and conniving with the King or attempting to understand the overtures of the young Prince. His performance was so inspired and unique that we felt he injected new meaning into the role and dissolved effortlessly into the character. At times his lines directed towards the other characters were affected with such energy that they won bouts of uproarious laughter from the audience, a contrast to the ferocity of Hamlet’s acting that was welcome and sharpened the potency of each. 

This is not to say that Hamlet and Polonius leave no room for other actors to shine. Ophelia excels particularly in her manic scenes after her father’s death. Her incoherent musings and panicky singing are laden with emotion, and prove that despite the strength of Hamlet and Polonius’s performances there is still room for others to excel. We are able to sympathize deeply with a character who loses her father, lover, and life.

Rather, the directionlessness of the rest of the cast, instead of the stand-out performances, leaves the play imbalanced. There are particular moments, which Shakespearean plays may be the most vulnerable to, when one notices that the actors are acting. Rather than the stormy shores of Denmark, one is transported uncomfortably back to the Morse Stiles Crescent Theatre.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern provided many such moments. So too did Laertes. His reaction when he learns of Ophelia’s death is delivered with such emotional one-dimensionality that it almost seems humorous without intention. Often, lines are handled without delicacy as actors rush through Shakespearean brilliances as if they were shots of Dubra vodka rather than Macallan 25. One particularly irksome moment is the delivery of Rosencrantz’s rejoinder to Hamlet’s lament that Denmark feels like a prison. We are given little more than a second to ruminate on “why then your ambition makes it one; ’tis too narrow for your mind” (Act 2, Scene 2). Rosencrantz and Guildenstern rattle through their jibes at Hamlet, and their supposed light-heartedness is forced and over-rehearsed.

Besides Polonius’s energetic and humorous performance, the one successful innovation was the use of lighting. Different tones of white light, projected from above, coloured various scenes with distinct ambiences. Hamlet’s monologues and demonstration of his internal conflict was cast in a slightly cooler tone than scenes of domestic discourse, and a slightly warmer tone than his conversations with the ghost of his father, the dead King (Adrien Rolet, SM ’24) during which eerily white light bathed the stage and audience. This choice highlighted the distinction between the various character’s understanding of the depth of Hamlet’s disturbance. When he wrestles with the question of whether he ought avenge his father’s death, shown before a scene in which Claudius (Rolet), Gertrude (Mia Rolland, SY ’24), and Polonius discuss the potential that his unusual behavior is engendered by love for Ophelia, the palpably different lighting of the scenes throws into relief the distinction between the internal and external. This update highlighted one of the central brilliances of Shakespeare’s script, demonstrating the dramatically varying interpretations of madness. 

This cast and crew clearly has a love for the work and they largely manage to allow Shakespeare’s brilliance to shine through. We appreciated the clever use of lighting and the show-stopping performances of Hamlet and Polonius are a thing to behold: truly anchoring and elevating the play. Otherwise, the lack of modernization or ornamental coherence shines a bright light on the performance of the actors and in various instances, those not named Phil or Leo do not rise to the occasion. We recommend this show for its entertainment and for the opportunity to see a few glimpses of true brilliance. If one will be rankled by any moments of awkward pentameter or flat-footed delivery, however, perhaps stay away. 

Verdict: 3/5
Length: 2 hours 45 minutes (10 minute interval after 1 hour 40 minutes)
Theatre: Morse Stiles Crescent (304 York St, New Haven, CT 06511)
Playing until: November 4th 
Written By: William Shakespeare
Directed By: Sam Bezilla (MY ’24)

*Update: An earlier version of this article referred to Bezilla’s Hamlet as “nearly unabridged.”

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