In the production of "Hamlet" that opened last night at the Folger Theatre, director Joe Banno hits the text and shatters it like a mirror. Not only are there severe edits, and not only are the words and scene order an amalgam of the folio and quarto versions of the script, but Hamlet himself is played by four actors. Yet as the shards of the smashed play fall, they occasionally glint brilliantly, reflecting the story from new angles, and in the end they come together in a kaleidoscopic pattern of their own.
Shakespeare infused his simple melodramatic plot--prince finds out his father was murdered and has to avenge that death--with so many shadows, shadings, echoes, illusions and mysteries that almost any production turns up something new and valid about the tragedy, something that expands its already near-limitless moral and poetic horizon. Banno's work here is about one of those echoes; it puts questions about the definition of the self through action, one of the play's many undertones, at center stage.
The ground level of Tony Cisek's two-tiered metallic set is backed by a curve of five mirrors that catch the stage action from different points of view. They also represent the fractured psyche of the hero, who is played by one actor (Holly Twyford) until after the scene with his father's ghost, after which it takes more than one of him to handle--or delay handling--the situation.
No point is made of Twyford's femaleness. If her appearance is slightly disconcerting, it's not because she's a woman but because, with her short hair and slight body, she looks like a boy of 13. This Hamlet, who in a memory scene snuggles next to his father (John Emmert) while being read to, is a child out of his depth in the secretive, manipulative, corrupt adult world. (But in the scenes with Ophelia, played by the exotic-looking Sarah Ripard, Twyford's Hamlet seems way too young.)
Banno and dramaturge Cam Magee's adaptation never makes clear the logic behind there being four Hamlets. The other three--Steve Carpenter, Kate Norris and Magee--aren't particularly well differentiated; there's no particular sense of how they represent alternate aspects of the hero's personality. Twyford's brave, harsh-voiced boy is surprisingly effective, but of the four actors, the one most likely to be able to play Hamlet solo is the rangy Norris, whose ironic intelligence and easy authority suit the role. Magee's and Carpenter's characterizations aren't as well defined.
Yet in spite of this, the conceit is weirdly compelling. It feels right, as if the revelation that his father was murdered somehow breaks Hamlet into pieces. The character here isn't exactly a case of multiple personality disorder, but he's not that far from it either. So this is Hamlet's madness--a dissociation into parts that argue with one another (the soliloquies are real debates), trapping the prince in a stasis of unresolve. No wonder he takes so long to decide to act.
At moments, the image of the four Hamlets has a shivery, subliminal power--as when, in unison, they step through mirrored doors into the queen's bedroom, or when, while Twyford talks with Horatio (Bill Largess) and the Gravedigger (Brad Waller), the other three bend wonderingly over Yorick's skull. But even when it's working this well, the four-part-hero idea renders the production extremely abstract, an analysis of the play as much as a performance of it.
Yet the analytic and amazed tone is what carries the evening, more than the acting or the individual scenes. Among the generally strong performances, Howard W. Overshown's gentle, sorrowing Laertes and Ripard's witchily mad Ophelia are standouts. And there's a self-consciously shocking sequence that nonetheless does shock when the Gravedigger--transformed here into an undertaker who chats to his pet skull when he isn't tapping cigarette ashes into it--prepares Ophelia's corpse for burial.
Along with Cisek's set, Dan Covey's hallucinatory lighting and Scott Burgess's subtle sound and score create a fifth aspect of Hamlet--his mindscape, the inner stage on which his drama takes place. Twyford's prince lurks at the edges of scenes he could not "really" have witnessed, raising the question of whether the events "actually" happened or are elements in a fantasy of grief and rage.
The production doesn't answer this question, and in general it raises more issues and ideas than it's able to deal with. It's neither complete nor satisfying, but it's wonderfully suggestive in its cerebral, surreal way--as if a scholar had fallen asleep over his notes and taken a dream journey through the play, as the old saints were said to travel, in their dreams, to Heaven or Hell.
Hamlet, by William Shakespeare. Directed by Joe Banno. Costumes, Justine Scherer; props, Elsie Jones; assistant director, Lofty Durham. With Lucy Newman-Williams, Rick Foucheux, Frederick Strother, Chuck Young, Edward Baird Wilford, Colleen Delany and Eric Sutton. At the Elizabethan Theatre at the Folger through Dec. 5. Call 202-544-7077.
CAPTION: Hamlet, cut four ways: Clockwise from front, Holly Twyford, Cam Magee, Steven Carpenter and Kate Norris in Joe Banno's abstract rendering of the Shakespeare tragedy.