Sure, Hamlet does a headstand while yearning for his too sullied flesh to melt. Claudius puts a champagne cork down the neck of Gertrude’s dress; and Elsinore’s sentinels skulk and bumble like so many Keystone Kops. Still, an intriguing current of seriousness courses through “Hamlecchino: Clown Prince of Denmark,” the ambitious new offering from the commedia dell’arte-focused Faction of Fools Theatre Company, which is in residence at Gallaudet University. Pouring Shakespeare’s tragedy through the filter of commedia, director Matthew R. Wilson and his team have created an almost Beckettian black-comedy aesthetic that proves surprisingly compatible with “Hamlet’s” themes.
The slapstick is just what you’d expect from a show that conflates “Hamlet’s” characters with the stock figures of commedia, the Italian street-theater form that was on an upswing in Shakespeare’s day. The fusion turns Claudius (Billy Finn) into a braggart Capitano; Polonius (a droll Toby Mulford) into a pompous Dottore; Ophelia (Emma Crane Jaster) into a Lover; and so on. Capering among these personalities is Hamlet (the nimble Wilson), an Arlecchino embodiment whose mannerisms include a bent-knee waddle and a habit of standing on one leg, as if he’s about to fling himself into a Looney Tunes cartoon.
After speaking with his father’s Ghost (David Gaines, looking eerily buoyant, like a Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade balloon), Hamlet reluctantly shifts into revenge mode, which propels him into clowning confrontations with fellow courtiers. At Ophelia’s funeral, for instance, he and Laertes (John V. Bellomo) tussle over her corpse, using her hands to slap each other petulantly. There are moments of even more strenuous horseplay, such as the sequence in which Horatio (Rachel Spicknall), a woman who seems to have a serious crush on Hamlet, leaps into the prince’s arms.
Similar shtick gave a giddy, spoofing tone to “A Commedia Romeo and Juliet,” an 80-minute riff mounted this year by the troupe, which received the John Aniello Award for outstanding emerging theater company at the recent Helen Hayes honors. By contrast, the current production doesn’t seem like a “Hamlet” sendup; it seems like “Hamlet” with a high-concept spin. That’s partly because the text has not been hacked to the bone. (The production clocks in at nearly 21 / 2 hours, including intermission.)
It’s also because the vibe complements the tragicomic elements in Shakespeare’s script (Hamlet’s gloomy wordplay; the gravediggers’ scene, etc.) while aligning with the modern tradition of using absurdity to reflect existential angst. You’re not too startled when a hint of tension flavors the buffoonery — such as when the crazed Ophelia dances a cancan in her straitjacket, which seems more poignant than wacky. Or when Hamlet speaks downright threateningly to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (Amelia Hensley and Marianna Devenow, Gallaudet students who deliver their lines in American Sign Language, a detail that fits in smoothly).
The relatively solid production values help. Ethan Sinnott’s cement-gray set, roomy enough for the show’s acrobatic hamming, vaguely suggests a Giorgio de Chirico painting. Denise Umland designed the show’s colorful Edwardian-inspired garb, including diamond-pattern socks and a matching vest for Hamlet (a sly nod to Arlecchino’s traditional motley). Umland also presumably came up with the gas masks and trench coats that deck out Fortinbras’s troops. When these soldiers appear, the tableau is more grotesque than funny, and that could be the point. It’s a sight gag that fits right in with Yorick’s skull.
Wren is a freelance writer.
text by William Shakespeare. Direction and choreography, Matthew R. Wilson; assistant director, Toby Mulford; lighting design, Andrew F. Griffin; sound design, Mehdi Raoufi; composer, Jesse Terrill; properties design, Sarah Conte; mask design, Aaron Cromie. With Eva Wilhelm and Justin Purvis. Through May 19 at Elstad Auditorium at Gallaudet University, 800 Florida Ave. NE. Call 800-838-3006 or visit www.factionoffools.org.