Ghostly Portents: Titan Theatre Company's HAMLET

Laura Frye as Hamlet in Titan Theatre's Hamlet.  Photo courtesy of Michael Pauley Photography.

Full Disclosure: This reviewer has seen over 30 iterations of Hamlet to date - from 4 person, 70 minute re-imaginings to 4-hour uncut spectaculars.  Comparison to other productions is inevitable.  See other Classical NYC review of Hamlet here and here.

The beauty of performing Shakespeare, is that he allows each group of artists to explore something new in his texts.  It's equally valid for Kenneth Branaugh to explore Love's Labour's Lost through the lens of musical theatre, as it is for him to present Henry V in doublet and hose.  The audience may prefer one version over another, but the important lens when entering in to see a Shakespeare show is:

What is this group of artists trying to say, and did they manage to say it?

Titan Theatre Company concludes their 10 Year Anniversary Season coming full circle to their iteration of Hamlet, directed by Artistic Director (and former Hamlet himself) Lenny Banovez, and featuring resident company member, Laura Frye as the Melancholy Dane.

Titan Theatre Company's signatures are highly-polished, high-energy, beautifully designed productions that give Off-Broadway houses a run for their theatrical money.  Housed in the blackbox of Queens Theatre, which has seating on two sides of a diamond, the cast and crew use the full space to their advantage, incorporating lush technical design and highly skilled actors.  (You can see what this reviewer thought of their Cyrano starring Tyler Moss here.)

While Titan Theatre Company tends to play with their technical elements, at it's heart, Titan is a classical theatre company that presents fairly straightforward productions of well-known plays.  This is perfect for anyone looking to see their first Shakespeare, or for completists who prefer not to have the Bard's work over-cut.

The play begins strongly, intercutting Claudius' opening speech with Horatio seeing the ghost (here represented by a series of eight screens, designed by Chris Kateff, that later double as shifting backdrops to the story).  As we settle back into story, the audience is introduced to our Hamlet, played by Laura Frye.

Frye is no stranger to Shakespeare, having played a variety of roles - both male and female - including Iago with Titan Theatre Company.  As Artistic and Stage Director Lenny Banovez said in BroadwayWorld: "Titan has always taken pride in how we cast. Diversity and Equality are cornerstones of our company and we are glad to continue to further this conversation and strive to be even better."

Frye certainly knows her way around the role of Hamlet - fragile in her soliloquies and droll in her mad scenes - but she also plays the role as male.  A missed opportunity in this year of 2019 when a few blocks away the role is being recontextualized for a female performer.  Having a woman in the role of Hamlet, whether she's playing her own gender or not, does soften the more misogynistic overtones that recent male directors have thought inherent to the role.  So while Frye does rail against her mother (an excellent Annalisa Loeffler as Gertrude), the power balance between bodies remains somewhat even.  To Frye's credit, she also finds the softer side of Hamlet in the nunnery scene with Ophelia (company member Laura Menzie) - although there never is a sense of sex between the two women, which confuses the plotline somewhat.

Similarly, there's only one other role that's genderbent in the production, Wesley Cady as Rosencrantz, a female performer who plays the role as female.  Given Titan's work towards diversity, which must be applauded, this reviewer would have liked to have seen a Player Queen as the primary performer, or watchpersons rather than just watchmen, or even a female Laertes to truly be a foil to their female Hamlet.

Indeed, where Banovez and script adaptor Jack Young make their strongest mark on the production is with the role of Osric, played by Anuj Parikh, whom they reconfigure from a two-scene fop to the King's personal bodyguard, present for Laertes' armed re-entrance, and complicit in the poisoning scheme.  The vision for the role of Osric was so clear, that it made this reviewer wish Banovez and Young had taken even more liberties with the script than they did.

The cast is uniformly excellent.  Stand-outs include Andrew Garrett as the fiery Laertes, capable of shedding tears as easily as fencing.  Garrett who most recently played the buffoonish Christian in Titan's Cyrano is an actor worth watching, already showing a considerable range between two somewhat modest roles.  T. Stacy Hicks as the Player King and the Gravedigger is an absolute delight.  He plays with the text nimbly, in a way that shows true ease with Shakespeare's work, and has a charisma that immediately illuminates the stage.  Analisa Loeffler gives a stately performance as Gertrude, and Michael Selkirk rendered Claudius' confession soliloquy beautifully.  Kevin Stanfa as Horatio is always a joy to watch, although I should have loved a production that gave him more stage time.

The technical staff should be praised.  From Analiese Puzon's excellent fight choreography (including gun choreography, which can be more tricky), to Alan Piortrowicz' wintery mood lighting and ominous driving score, to Chris Kateff's excellent videography, bringing the ghost to life, to Lenny Banovez's scenic design that subtly told the story of changing regimes through the use of white and black marble motif - all the technical elements were perfectly on-point.

Which only leaves the question: what was this Hamlet about?

Perhaps there needn't be a greater vision to the play than the performance of the play as written.  As Hamlet himself says: "The readiness is all.  Let be."

However, having seen so many renderings of Shakespeare's text - and Hamlet in particular - as daunting as it may be, this reviewer has found that those productions succeed that have a strong point of view, who tease out some philosophy from Shakespeare's work that's highly personal to the performers.  Those who dare to say more create works of art that transform the play and make it pertinent.  True, sometimes - sometimes often - playing with Shakespeare's text can lead to disaster.  But there is always more to mine in Shakespeare's work, and I should love to see Titan Theatre Company delve even deeper, considering their level of talent both on-stage and off. This is a compliment: we only challenge companies who can do more.

In the meantime, if you're looking for a solid performance of Hamlet with brilliant technical elements, definitely check out Titan Theatre Company's celebratory production.

Titan Theatre Company's Hamlet plays through April 14, 2019 at the Queens Theatre in Queens.  Tickets are available here.


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