Baltimore has a new theatre company in town! And while I generally tend to feel it seems like we have a new company every season and risk oversaturating the market, I still felt a rush of excitement finding out there are more people interested in creating theatre in Baltimore City. The Organic Theatre is motived by the idea of theatre being a “living organism,” and their inaugural production is none other than an adaptation of William Shakespeare’s “Hamlet.” It’s safe to say they are nothing if not ambitious. Advertised as a 90-minute adaptation, the production was edited to streamline the story, exercising any subplots and superfluous characters (Rosencrantz and Guildenstern notably).
Adapting Hamlet is no easy task, attempting to adapt it into a 90 minute play is even harder, to accomplish this (which they don’t quite do, clocking in at just under two hours) they remove all subplots and characters, so we’re left with the just the main players and a messenger or two. This choice in itself is not necessarily good or bad, however, at times, it appeared as though they kept the parts of the script that are more “fun” to perform than the others that might be more necessary to tell the story. At times the script felt a touch self-gratifying and not so much an attempt to elevate the text or adapt the text to tell a different aspect of it. Overall though I would call the adaptation successful at accomplishing what it wanted to, which was to shift the story of Hamlet to focus on the relationship between two different generations and how they either succeed or fail in their respective “duties” to each other.
One standout of the performers was Musa Gurnis, playing Gertrude. She had some fascinating moments, deftly balancing being a queen, wife, widow, and mother all at once. Her dynamics and willful choices of when and how to honor her duty to any of these “roles” were clearly realized and well executed, although occasionally Gurnis was a little over zealous at making sure we realized that.
John Posner playing Claudius and the ghost of Hamlet’s father was a bit more inconsistent in his portrayals. He embodied the eeriness of the ghost and showed great physical command, but his Claudius seemed a bit off. He constantly seemed to be pushing and reaching for the character, so at times it was a bit strenuous. Nonetheless he managed to hold Claudius’ power and command quite capably.
This brings me the title character of the show. There are a million and one ways to play the character of Hamlet, all of which can be justified and strong. The approach Mark Whitman took is an easily justifiable interpretation and one that could land quite strongly. He presented Hamlet with an “at face value” approach to the text, when the words suggested Hamlet was mad, that’s exactly what we got, etc. This ensured that we were getting the Hamlet we expected to see, but did not reward with us with any new or interesting subtext. The downfall with this approach was that we lose a good amount of Hamlet’s wittiness, biting one liners and clever turns of phrases are lost when the lines are read with the surface level emotional interpretation. Whitman also had an issue of starting at too high of an intensity and having nowhere to go. It is worth noting that Whitman does exceptionally well at executing his choices, he shows a command over the emotional trajectory of one of history’s most complicated literary characters, but, as said before, fails to really bring anything new to the role.
The direction by Luke Scaros shows tremendous promise. He made a wise choice to present some of the moments of the play almost as something out of a Dario Argento horror film, and those were executed with precision. Other choices were not quite so cohesive or defensible. These choices mainly had to do with the creation of the world. Everything about it was just a bit unclear. Design elements such as time period, place, texture, and color were a bit too inconsistent to alleviate any ambiguity. But I’m going to chalk a good chunk of that up to this being the company’s first ever production, and say that with all that in mind I’m excited to see what else Scaros is able to accomplish in future productions.
One last note on the show as a whole, for a cast of eight people, there was only one person of color on stage. In addition, this actor of color was also only in roles such as guard or messenger, basically only in roles of service. For a new company in Baltimore, it is imperative that the theatre represents and supports all of the community it wants to be a part of. This is an issue that is present in almost every single theatre in Baltimore and deserves to be addressed with each show that fails to represent actors and characters of color. There’s not much that can be done about this production, but going forward I hope that Organic Theatre considers this prominent issue when selecting shows and when casting.
SHOULD I STAY OR SHOULD I GO? Is this the best production of Hamlet I’ve ever seen? No. Was it worth the price of admission? Absolutely. There are compelling performances with interesting direction choices. It is an easy entry point into Shakespeare for people who are usually discouraged by him. So go and support this emerging theater company. (B)