By Mike Foley
As the house lights dimmed in Kaser Theater and the stage lights came on, I sat down to witness Why Not Theater’s production of Prince Hamlet. After two and a half hours, I left the theater amazed.
The theater company from Canada started the show by walking on stage and introducing themselves and what character they’d be playing. As each actor spoke their name and what part they would play, the actors then went on to fingerspell them in American Sign Language simultaneously. As each actor signed I grew more and more interested as I had not yet seen a rendition of the classic Shakespearean play like this.
The version presented by Director/Adaptor Ravi Jain is a condensed three-act version of the original five-act play. Besides the condensing of the script, there was one other change to the play. The main one mentioned earlier was that the play was bilingual, featuring the use of both English and American Sign Language or ASL. The signer for the play was Deaf actress Dawn Jani Birley who played Horatio. Throughout the play, Birley is a constant on the stage as she signs out every scene whether she is a part of them or not. It should be noted that it is mentioned that the character of Horatio is Deaf in this adaptation of the play as well. The use of changing facial expressions and signing for each character as well as acting as a character herself is an impressive feat. Adding the element of ASL and Deaf culture lends itself to exciting dynamics as seen in one scene where Guildenstern, played by Sturla Alvsvagg, tries to speak to the titular character while ignoring Horatio entirely until forced to speak through Horatio to get to Hamlet, played by Eli Pauley. The ASL use also played well into dramatic moments such as when Ophelia, played by actor Jeff Ho, walks off stage to meet her end she takes to the back of the set hiding in the shadow almost invisible while Horatio signs her demise in the center of the stage.
As for the other actors, they all did phenomenal work. But, Eli Pauley who portrayed Hamlet in my personal opinion stole the show—making the titular lead come off as both smart and witty as well as incensed and delusional. Jeff Ho who portrayed Ophelia was another standout for me taking what little stage time he had and capturing the heartbreak and eventual insanity that befalls the character. Barbra Gordon who played Polonius was just pure fun to watch, switching from light comedy to serious plotting with Claudius, played by Andrew Musselman, perfectly making me excited to see her on stage every time. All the other actors gave it their all as well making this a phenomenal piece of art from an acting perspective.
The set in which the play took place was one of two choices that felt odd when first seeing it but reflecting over time allowed me to understand and appreciate it even more. The set consisted of a wooden floor with a white tarp underneath it. Around the floor were mounds of dirt with three mirrors hanging from the ceiling behind them. Above hung two electric candle chandeliers adding to the gothic aesthetic of the play. This set worked perfectly allowing for seamless transitions into the next scene without much change needing to be done. The main highlights of this set would be in two major scenes. The first is the scene following the actors arriving to perform for Hamlet. The stage goes dark as we watch a purple light illuminate the mounds of dirt and mirrors behind the floors and see Claudius and Gertrude taking part in marital relations. The relations end abruptly as we then hear Hamlet scream and fall to the floor in the center of the wooden floor, with the spotlights adorning him. The other note full scene to utilize the set would be when Claudius is asking for forgiveness from God. He knees on a mound of dirt and looks into the mirror asking for forgiveness allowing the audience to see his face as he pleads.
The other choice that left me perplexed was how the final battle was handled. Rather than have the actors take their places with swords in hand and two chairs, they all broke the cardinal rule of theater: never turn your back on the audience. Gertrude, Hamlet, Claudius, and Laertes all sat on mounds of dirt left on the wood floor with their back to the audience as Horatio took center stage. The actors raised their hands when they spoke their lines as Horatio signed their words. Horatio signed the action as well for the final battle adding a good visual aid. The four actors who sat all played out their deaths, however. Gertrude fell to the floor as she succumbed to the poison; Laertes clutched his stomach as he fell backward upstage saying his final words, and Hamlet and Claudius wrestled upstage before Hamlet stabs Claudius and then gave a final speech before also succumbing to the posing pumping through his veins. Horatio is left alone. light adorned her and signed her final monologue before the play came to an end. Leaving the theater I didn’t fully understand the true meaning of the final battle. However, after taking some time it became apparent that the final battle was not designed for the hearing viewer, it was designed for the non-hearing viewer. The final battle amplified the bilingual aspect of the play, highlighting Birley’s incredible interpreting and acting, showing she can truly act as any character. Even though you could hear the actors speak their lines they are completely turned away from us – we can’t see their faces or body language. The audience is solely focused on Horatio and the sign language interpretation that Birley artfully performs. Looking back on it, that choice makes me appreciate this piece of theater even more. The play comes to an end with Horatio left standing on the stage alone, surrounded by the bodies of the one living character. Birley signs a final monologue ending with “what did you want to see”. As the silent applause began I sat back in astonishment.
This is by far the best adaptation I’ve witnessed of Hamlet. Everything here worked from the acting to the set design to how the condensed story flowed. This was a work of art through and through.