Friday, April 4, 2014

Something is Rotten in the State of Denmark- But Awesome in the State of Georgia!

Tsiambwom Akuchu as Hamlet
Photo courtesy of Visit Statesboro
Earlier this week, I tweeted that I would be postponing my usual Monday blog post to later in the week. Well, Happy Friday! It's later! I promised that I'd be writing about something special, so it would be worth the wait. Trust me, it is. Rather than posting about Broadway or Disney, I'm bringing y'all down to the low country, where Georgia Southern University students are performing Hamlet this week through next Wednesday, April 9. Note: there are spoilers afoot! But if you don't know the spoilers from a 17th century play by now, you need to go home. Or just examine your life choices. Or brush up your Shakespeare by watching this video SparkNote before proceeding.

Under the direction of GSU professor Lisa Abbott, this version of Hamlet is set in modern day, for a change. Ok, let's be real: everyone and their mother is setting Shakespeare in modern day, but that's how he himself wrote it, right? And you guessed it, there are a couple of gender-benders. Barnardo and Guildenstern are casually played by girls (Katie Pearson and Dani McGee, respectively), because what is a 21st century production of Shakespeare if it's not set in a non-1600s time period with some guy roles changed to girls or vice versa? Besides just being set in 2014, however, this Hamlet has a futuristic twist. Stemming from the fact that Hamlet can't really trust anyone, this production throws in the added stress of being watched. There are surveillance cameras everywhere, so not only can Hamlet trust no one, but he can't keep anything secret. With this 1984-esque spin, the show's main draw is that it is multimedia-heavy.

This set, possibly the biggest set that GSU has ever built, has four screens: a huge one in the center, two medium-sized ones on each side, and then a flat-screen-sized one in what is supposed to be the guards' surveillance room*. The security footage works very well to tell the story, making this show a production masterpiece. Designers Sean DeVine and Kelly Berry should be very proud. During the whole show, the audience can see the security footage on a loop in the guard room, which is shots of the outside of the theatre. Using surveillance shots of the actual building in which the play takes place effectively creates a very immersive atmosphere for the audience.

Besides all of these surveillance cameras, more multimedia elements include iPads, smartphones (and you best believe there's a pre-France Laertes and Ophelia selfie), a news broadcast, and even some live surveillance/news cameras. The news broadcast was an added element which was supposed to be like an E! coverage of the royal wedding, which helped to set the scene at the beginning of the play. What's great about GSU's production of Hamlet is that the ways they have used the multimedia elements- particularly the visual ones-  really help to advance the story, and more importantly, make it more applicable to today. For instance, the letters from Hamlet become video chats, the play-within-a-play becomes a movie, and the players become movie stars who walk the red carpet in another newscast.

Playing the title character, Theatre Major Tsiambwom Akuchu has been studying his lines ever since last August. He says that for the first semester, it was mostly text analysis and that memorization was added later. To say his work paid off would be an understatement. This Georgia Southern Junior delivered a heartfelt performance, making me question why he has not been the lead in every show at GSU ever. The simplicity with which he delivered his most famous monologue, "To be or not to be..." brought Shakespeare down from mystic high-culture literature to simple language to which any audience member could relate.

Laertes, played by Theatre Major Gregory Hernandez (Happy in last year's Death of a Salesman), showed his broad emotional range throughout the whole show, starting with his sweet, brotherly delivery of his speech to Ophelia (played by Jenna Lancaster) towards the beginning. His very fluid speaking style was easy to understand- a hard thing to come by in anything less than professional theatre. Then as he angrily burst on stage holding a gun, shaking, and screaming, "Where is this king?!" in Act V, he was terrifying. This juxtaposed with his heartbroken expression as he then looked at his deranged sister, allowed him to seriously tug at the heartstrings of every single audience member. This brilliant young actor definitely has a future in Shakespeare.

New Georgia Southern transfer student, Jenna Lancaster, has now made her mark on the GSU theatre department. The girlish innocence with which she portrayed Ophelia (who is actually supposed to be very young, though we may think of her as an ingenue) made the end even more powerful as her sanity abandoned her. It was clear that this actress knew exactly what her lines meant, and because of that, she was able to bring her character to the audience's level. I would like to see Lancaster on many more Shakespearean stages as well.

The entire ensemble had obviously been immersed in their lines and the entire script for an extended period of time, which made them all amazing, particularly Sophomore Alex Bowser. As Horatio, he stood out as he delivered his complicated Shakespeare lines conversationally.

The fight choreography by Nicholas Newell incorporated the talents and strength of Hernandez and Akuchu very well. It was a visual feast as the two struggled through conventional knife standoffs (as each pulled out his knife, I kept waiting for someone to say, "Don't push me!" and the West Side Story rumble music to kick in) to some break-dance moves.

There are few things worse than bad Shakespeare, but when done right, it's like a beautiful symphony.

Sally Henry www.BroadwayWorld.com/author/Sally-Henry // Twitter: www.twitter.com/bwayginger // Facebook: www.facebook.com/singularsensationbway

*if that description of the set was as complicated as I thought it was, look at these production shots, and that should clear up the confusion.

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