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Chicago Shakespeare Company

Within the first five minutes of a recent performance of Chicago Shakespeare Company's Hamlet, a man in the back row of the theater fell asleep and began to snore loudly, which he continued until intermission. As the hours dragged on, I realized that he was probably the most content member of the audience. Whatever his dreams were, they couldn't have been worse than the nightmare onstage.

Although this is clearly a "concept" production (director Myron Freedman has done some major tinkering with the script), I can't say I know what Freedman had in mind. Judging from his director's notes, it seems he believes Hamlet is a semiautobiographical work. The bizarre rearrangement of the text must be tied to this notion, but it confused rather than clarified. And if Hamlet is indeed meant to be Shakespeare, Freedman has some mighty odd ideas about the playwright's life, for his Hamlet comes off as nothing more than the fever dream of a sex-crazed lunatic.

The production begins with the faint sounds of the final duel between Hamlet and Laertes. The lights come up slowly on Hamlet, who's lying on the ground. A ball bounces past him, and a young boy chases it, then runs off after seeing the inert prince. As the act unfolds, seemingly random, overlapping scenes play around Hamlet, until he sits up with a start. He watches the scenes in a daze, without comprehension, as though he's a ghost in wonderland. Sometimes he reaches out to someone or touches them, but they don't sense his presence.

Slowly, the scenes begin to tell the story. Slowly, Hamlet is drawn into it, though he still spends most of the first few acts rolling about the floor, apparently in some mental state between dream and reality. (He delivers the "To be, or not to be" monologue lying on his back, only his upside-down head facing the audience.)

When he stands up, what emerges is an alarmingly violent and aggressive Hamlet, rather than a sweet and noble prince. He delights in yelling at people, throwing them on the ground, and crawling all over them. Much of the crawling is sexual.

Sex is apparently rampant in the Danish court, and Hamlet (or Shakespeare) is one of its most libidinous dwellers. He appears to want to sleep with Ophelia, his mother Gertrude, Horatio, his father's ghost (who is played by a young boy--are we to suppose that Shakespeare was a pedophile?), and possibly Rosencrantz or Guildenstern. Hamlet is not the only lascivious courtier, however. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern seem to be lovers, though Guildenstern has an eye for the queen as well. And both seem to be taken with Hamlet, until he turns nasty on them. Horatio does not appear averse to Hamlet's affections, and Ophelia desperately wants to get laid (Hamlet is clearly her first choice, but there are hints of incest in her scenes with Laertes). The only completely monogamous one is King Claudius, who spends most of his time with his head buried in Queen Gertrude's breasts. Ancient Rome has a serious challenger to its legacy of decadence in Freedman's Denmark.

These characters share Hamlet's preoccupation with the floor, where an inordinate amount of the action takes place. If Hamlet hasn't thrown them there, they do the honor themselves, usually in one emotional fit or another.

Some of the ideas and images are interesting enough on a theoretical level. But the production is so sloppy and incoherent that they completely obscure the story line. Virginia Heaven's gaudy, cartoonish costumes don't help. Ophelia's mad scene, for instance, is only made buffoonish by the slit and shredded dress she wears, which makes her look as if she's auditioning for West Side Story.

The action is further hindered by the fact that most of the actors have a great deal of trouble with the verse. One who doesn't is James Baiocchi, who plays the small role of the Player King with more dignity, grace, and nobility than anyone in the rest of the play. His movement, too, is refreshingly clear. When Hamlet recites a speech from the players' repertoire, Baiocchi stands directly behind him, making the same motions Hamlet makes, yet gently correcting his gestures and stances. It is as precise as Kabuki. It is almost a dance. And it is the only image of the evening that actually works.


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