Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Grave Talk: Nova Arts Project’s Brave New Hamlet

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Sean Judge and Leraldo Anzaldua in Hamlet
Photo by Noe Mendoza III.

We have all seen Hamlet the old way, perhaps countless times, so why not inject a little adventure in the process? That’s what the folks at Nova Arts Project were thinking, when they set out to redo the Bard’s classic play about a sane boy gone mad in a nutty world, or the other way around, depending on your point of view. Is Hamlet mad or is he just mirroring the world-in-collapse around him? Director Brian Byrnes keeps us guessing in his killer thriller rendition of Hamlet.

The disintegrating world forms the starting point for Byrnes’ Hamlet. The audience is greeted with an armed riot squad trolling about the stage; there’s no shying away from a violent world here. Something rotten this way comes for sure in Denmark or wherever Byrnes has placed his totalitarian society. Set in what looks like a bunker, with a handy on-stage incinerator for the mounting bodies to come, the scene looks all uncomfortably familiar. Enough about the living, it’s the dead that count here. The ghost of Hamlet’s father, stoically played by Shelley Wilson in full Darth Vader garb, gets the first and last words.

Aaron White’s ticking-bomb Hamlet adds a visceral quality--a palpable jumpiness that creates a physical sense of distrust and amps up the anxiety big-time. White’s adrenalin-charged performance forms the nerve center for the whole drama to unravel. He even manages a microscopic moment of comic relief when he drags Polonius’ body off with a droll “Goodnight Mother.” It's a fresh take on the dreamy prince for certain, and quite thrilling to watch. Jenni Rebecca Stephenson and Sean Judge play Gertrude and Claudius with a chilly polish contrasting White’s hypervigilance.

Clinton Hopper’s austere set combined with Bryan Nortin’s stark lighting set a mood of grim-enough gloom. Kiza Moore’s costumes add a sleek futuristic feel. Byrnes and Leraldo Anzaldua's terrifically exciting fight scenes keep the audience on edge. In fact, the zippy pace punches along at a quick clip heightening the terror at every moment.

I have a few quibbles that have nothing to do with tampering with Shakespeare. The men with guns, traveling actors dressed as prisoners, and rock concert ending proved heavy-handed and largely extraneous to establish the bleakness of the situation. Although Ophelia on a gurney makes perfect sense, I question Hamlet’s use of medieval-looking syringes.

Nova seems intent on following a long-standing tradition in experimental circles of having their way with the classics. All power to this frisky, upstart troupe for carrying the torch for change in the sometimes sleepy world of theater.

Nova Arts Project presents Hamlet through January 20th at the Jose Quintero Lap theatre, University of Houston. Call 713-623-4033 or visit