I have to admit something: I’ve been one to write off non-traditional adaptations of classic work, especially Shakespeare, because they often seem to signal the production doesn’t have faith in the material, or faith in the audience…or, horror of horrors, feels the need to make a statement.
So, it came as a great surprise to leave The Betsy Stage’s production of Hamlet delighted. Why? Because it wasn’t Shakespeare, at least not entirely.
First, the play set in a Gypsy camp, not Denmark. Picture walking into a carnival in Neverland full of hipsters, tribal music and florid décor, and you’ve got the idea.
A Gypsy woman’s father is murdered by his ambitious brother, intent on taking over as ringleader of their traveling carnival. From here, the plot is loosely tied to Shakespeare, but is decorated with new poetic commentary on Gypsy life, the meaning of family and the beauty of tradition.
What works really well here is the focus on community. This adaptation isn’t about Hamlet’s existential crisis. It is about the crisis of a community. Hamlet’s monologues are divided between the previously secondary characters. In a poignant moment, Ophelio (a male Ophelia) utters the infamous “To be, or not to be” speech, tragic in that his impending suicide is reasoned rather than brought on by madness. By removing Hamlet as the sole philosopher, we are allowed to empathize with the ensemble; Hamlet’s poisoned perspective is no longer, mercifully, the only perspective.
The beauty of this play though is that you have to step outside analysis to appreciate it. As any good carnival, it’s about the spectacle. Pet bears, tomfoolery and magic tricks are just the fantastical beginning.
Music is the glue of the show. Rustic pipes and drums, traditional guitar and fanciful organ cast a spell that makes this exotic world viable. Suddenly the heightened stakes make sense when the world of the play is music and dance, based in something primal. This sometimes reads as melodrama. But measured domestication has nothing to do with the world of the Gypsy.
To compliment the soundtrack, the blocking is acrobatic, fluid. The literal gymnastics are for the most part well timed and well executed. Interestingly, the movement doesn’t rob understanding of the text, but enhances it. Rosa and Guilda in particular (Kaitlyn Althoff and Michal Andrea Meyer), Hamlet's favorite fools, provide commentary almost exclusively through dance, creating mood with their bodies.
It would be remiss not to mention the set. I want to live on this set, and suspect Tinker Bell already does. Two elaborate wagons bookend the communal living space: the first, a grand structure clad with twinkle lights, luxurious cushions and decorative skulls; the second, a tiny garden on wheels, draped casually with lace and a kaleidoscopic array of wild flowers. The structures convey the warmth and care of the inhabitants of the carnival, another lovely departure from source text’s overall gloom.
To sum up the differences between the original and this adaptation, I have to say The Betsy Stage somehow makes Hamlet welcoming, rather than dense and cerebral, a charming remaster of an old standard.