Hebrew 'Hamlet' Gives the Bard A Few Turns

The queen (Sara von Schwartze) and king (Gil Frank) attend to Hamlet (Itay Tiran) in the modern-dress production.
The queen (Sara von Schwartze) and king (Gil Frank) attend to Hamlet (Itay Tiran) in the modern-dress production. (Photos By Gadi Dagon -- Cameri Theatre Of Tel Aviv)
By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 9, 2007

In Omri Nitzan's Hebrew-language "Hamlet," the chair's the thing.

The one you're sitting on, that is. It and 169 others have been imported from Israel and installed for the occasion in the center of Signature Theatre's big new black-box space. They swivel 360 degrees -- a feature absolutely essential to appreciating the fleet and lively "Hamlet" that the Tel Aviv-based Cameri Theatre has brought to Washington for the week.

The chairs prove to be a totally cool device, and Nitzan, the director, makes sure we give the springs a workout. His "Hamlet" takes place on platforms ringing the perimeter, as well as in a wide aisle down the middle that divides the audience in half.

With action unfolding all around us, it's as if we, too, are bobbing in Hamlet's sea of troubles. And the dynamic prince of this production, Itay Tiran, is dashing in every sense of the word: He and the 14 other actors in this compressed version speak their lines as if they were worried about their cars idling outside at meters. Zip, zip, go those famous soliloquies, and before you know it, Elsinore is awash in dead Danish royalty and Fortinbras is waiting at the gates.

Nitzan is artistic director of the venerable Cameri -- founded in 1944, making it four years older than modern Israel itself -- and he has brought the company here as part of the six-month Shakespeare in Washington festival. It's a felicitous visit, and not only because exposure to theater from another country can be broadening. Nitzan clearly knows how to tell a story. Which is a huge advantage when you're telling it in a language that only a smattering of your audience understands. The production's truncated text is flashed in English surtitles on panels on all four walls of the theater, a vital service even for those who know the play well.

Inevitably, of course, something is lost when you can't match Shakespeare's inherent musicality to the sounds emanating from an actor's throat. "Words, words, words," Hamlet declares memorably at one point; the problem here is you miss the words entirely if you become distracted by an actor's expressiveness. And purists have to trust that obscure words from the text such as "fardel" -- meaning "burden" -- are being translated with something close to fealty in the adaptation by the late Israeli poet T. Camri.

Nitzan's modern-dress production, with its intensely masculine sensibility -- Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, for instance, carry submachine guns -- makes for a fun evening, if one that is not especially affecting. I didn't count much in the way of fresh observation here: The director hews to the Freudian cliche of having Hamlet plant a smacker on the lips of his prostrate mother, and the courtier Osric (Alon Dahan) is played, as is often tiresomely the case, for high camp. (Yes, I hear you: He is described by Hamlet as a "waterfly.")

You can sense, too, a director building "Hamlet" around self-conscious "moments" that are more theatrical than illuminating, as when Tiran sits at a piano to plunk one classical ditty or another, or showily flashes a knife at his own wrist during his recitation of "To be or not to be."

Still, Nitzan and Tiran conspire to create an appealingly self-dramatizing idea of Hamlet, a young man who knows that the eyes of the Danish court are on him -- and who likes it. He wears his sense of grievance grandly; there is no pretense of his madness being anything but an act, or that as a "performance," Hamlet's erratic behavior is much subtler than the dumb-show murder he arranges for the Players to put on for his mother, Gertrude, and his usurping uncle, Claudius.

Tiran, like the other actors, is always highly watchable, and his physical ease is a match for princely entitlement. Gil Frank's nicely played Claudius is suffused with guile and vanity (he doubles as the ghost of Hamlet's father).

Itzhak Heskia, meanwhile, gives a persuasive account of Polonius as a cunning royal apparatchik, a shrewder man than he is usually made out to be. His particularly cruel use here of daughter Ophelia (Neta Gardi) in the effort to subvert Hamlet injects a needed tension in her story. In Gardi's portrayal, she's a dewy teenybopper who is woefully ill-equipped for the machinations at the court, and so her mental disintegration and suicide make more sense than is often the case.

While Sara von Schwarze's Gertrude is handsome, the performance is a bit chilly for this explosively kinetic version of the tragedy. Amir Kriaf's virile Laertes, on the other hand, has just the sort of short fuse you want in this young firebrand.

The play's climactic duel between Laertes and Hamlet occurs in that aisle down the middle of the theater, and for a moment or two, you worry that one of their epees is going to take someone's eye out. This intriguing sensation of something tangible at risk is what is intensified when Shakespeare is played so up-close and personal.

Hamlet, by William Shakespeare, translated into Hebrew by T. Carmi. Directed by Omri Nitzan. Set and costumes, Ruth Dar; music, Yossi Ben Nun; lighting, Keren Granek; choreography, Daniella Michaeli. With Ezra Dagan, Aviv Zerner, Yoav Levi, Asaf Goldstein, Noa-Cohen- Shabtai. About 2 hours 40 minutes. Through Sunday at Signature Theatre, 2800 S. Stafford St., Arlington. Call 800-955-5566 or visit

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