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The Day of Murders in the History of Hamlet

a Atlanta Premiere
by Bernard-Marie Koltes

VENUE : 7 Stages [WEBSITE]
ID# 3712

SHOWING : April 03, 2010 - April 25, 2010



Another striking installment of the US Koltes Project which presents works by Bernard Marie Koltes as translated into modern English. In this re-visioning of Shakespeare's original HAMLET, only four of the original play's main characters are featured (Hamlet, Gertrude, Ophelia, and Claudius). Koltes's “Hamlet” is a younger, faster, more urgent exploration of the family dynamic, sexuality, ambition and murder that will run in 7 Stages’ backstage April 3-25, 2010.

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Deconstructing Koltes
by Dedalus
Friday, April 23, 2010
7 Stages is in the midst of a 10-year project delving into the works of French playwright Bernard-Marie Koltes, whose career was cut short by AIDS in 1989. This project has received a considerable amount of international attention, being covered in detail by “American Theatre” magazine, and having its productions performed across the United States and Europe (not to mention being the subject of an in-production documentary film).

I unfortunately missed the inaugural productions (“In the Solitude of Cottonfields” and “Black Battles with Dogs”), so this early work is my first exposure to this writer. Like the early works of many promising artists, this script shows the promise of a writer experimenting with form, with modes of presentation, with language, and with audience expectation. Unfortunately, I found this particular piece not only particularly non-memorable (or even challenging), but also rather badly cast and performed.

Rather than turning this column into a catty dismissal of this play and this (to me) undeserving obsession with Koltes, let me attempt to deconstruct the play, and why it left me unmoved, distinctly irritated at the sheer self-indulgence of it all.

First, let’s look at the idea of “reducing ‘Hamlet’ to its essentials.” The play is described by its director (Thierry de Peretti) as a “condensation” of the play to a single day – that of the final murders – so that “the tragedy of Elsinore turns into a familial and contemporary chronicle.” Leaving aside the injury this does to the logical flow of events of the story, I still can’t help but wonder why this seemed to be a good idea. “Hamlet,” after all, resonates after all these years because it is MORE than a simplistic “familial drama,” that its own complexity reflects the complexity of what it means to be alive. I would hardly describe the familial elements of “Hamlet” as its “essentials.” There’s a difference between simplifying something and making something simplistic. In my mind, Koltes has reduced one of the great dramas of the human condition into a shallow soap opera. This particular piece, to my mind, actually strips the essentials out of “Hamlet.”

To simplify this criticism, it’s a little bit like trying to find the “essentials” of the color green by stripping it of its yellow.

To his credit, Koltes does give us some interesting glimpses into the social-political power struggle within a family, gives us a Gertrude who is not only complicit in Claudius’ coup, but also a co-instigator, and tries to show how the gender-role dynamics of the times (late sixties/early seventies) were not that far removed from those depicted by Shakespeare. Not so much to his credit, he also gives us some post-modern nonsense about theatre’s emptiness and the existential quest to find meaning in a life essentially constructed for an audience’s leisure, as if the self-awareness of a character’s artificial nature somehow makes it less artificial. I’ve always seen this sort of (very seventies) philosophy singularly insincere and intellectually dishonest on the level of “I hate bigots and [any group meriting bigoted disdain].”

To its credit, the production sets the play throughout the black box space at 7 Stages, setting scenes in the hallway, the tech booth, and lighting it with existing light (chandeliers, floor lamps, and dimmer-controlled work lights), creating a playing space that breaks down traditional barriers between audience and actor. Not so much to its credit, this means that the audience is crammed onto a few benches along the wall, as if their presence is an afterthought to be only slightly tolerated. This also means that much of the action is purposefully obscured from us, is made dim and shadowy beyond any dramatic necessity. And it means the actual tech operator is fully visible with his control boards and cue sheets, another pretentious device that never works or adds anything to a theatrical experience.

Perhaps much of this play’s problems begin with the translation, rather than the original. 7 Stages artist Ismail ibn Conner, the driving force behind the entire Koltes project is quoted as saying that the original Koltes translations were “too British for American ears,” a statement I find offensively condescending. Here, though, we’re given speeches from the original Shakespeare that sound like they have gone through an on-line translator from Shakespeare to French then back to English. Lines we’re all familiar with suddenly sound stilted, unpoetic, and, frankly, a bit stupid. Most egregious is Hamlet’s “mad scene” being reduced to a repeated string of profanity suggestive of a Middle School locker room. Was the point to attempt, in English, to reproduce Koltes’ interpretation of Shakespeare? Once more, I ask why? This only makes the lines sound false, sound wrong, sound too far removed from anything remotely human, which, from what I’ve read, is exactly opposite what Koltes intended.

The casting of this piece was also problematic. Mr. Connor himself is a strong and forceful Claudius, but he delivers the bulk of his dialogue in that low-energy monotone we expect more from classroom recitations than from professional stages. Joey Boren gives us a bong-smoking Hamlet who shows not a whit of passion or thought or depth. No one could think his madness is anything but feigned, and his attraction to Ophelia is one of duty more than passion, certainly an approach worth pursuing, but here seeming less an actor’s choice than an actor’s shortcoming. Anna Simonton’s Ophelia comes across the best, showing a wide range of responses to being the pawn in all this pseudo-drama, handling the language with both skill and energy.

Which brings us to Kate Moran’s Gertrude. Ms. Moran, like Ms. Simonton, handles the language well, and gives what should be an intriguing Gertrude, seductive and cold, calculating and insincere. But she is never able to overcome her profound miscasting. She comes across as the youngest member of the cast, looking more like Hamlet’s younger sister than his mother. And, she is so painfully thin that, unless she starved for months, you know she never carried a child, a knee-jerk response (admittedly), but one confirmed by the un-marred appearance of her oft-exposed belly.

I’m not ready to dismiss Koltes yet as a writer with a well-deserved obscurity. This is, after all, an early work, and it does have some ideas that hint at what a more seasoned writer could deliver. And, this starts on the wrong foot by being an adaptation of a well-known piece that I cannot help but use a measuring stick. I also want to applaud the effort being put forward to bring a writer into the consciousness of the American theater.

By the same token, this production is filled with too many less-than sensational ideas mounted using out-dated methods that were never fresh even when they were new. And, with only the female half of the cast not disappointing from the get-go, I can’t recommend this for anyone who is not already studying Koltes or French Theatre of the seventies.

And I especially cannot forgive this production for reducing Hamlet to a surly teenager.

-- Brad Rudy (



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