Bleak Travels Through “Hamlet Asylum”

Presented by The Calliope Project

May 3, 4, 10, and 11th at 8PM
Green Street Studios Theatre
185 Green St
Cambridge MA
The Calliope Project Facebook Page

Review by the lovely Gillian Daniels


Some contemporary productions of Hamlet play with the ambiguity of the Prince of Denmark’s sanity.  Is he seeking justice or satisfying a personal vendetta with the logic of a “ghost” to back him up, “mad north-north-west” or just vengeful?  In Hamlet Asylum, this ambiguity is dismissed.  Most of the play clearly takes place in the head of Bryan Bernfield’s Hamlet.  A masked Greek chorus (Meghan Kelly, Amiel Bowers, and Samuel Guerin) speak in the voice of his father, his confidant Horatio, the gravediggers, and others, all in the guise of Hamlet’s repressed desires.   It’s a clever idea.  The result, though,
is a production both rich with symbols and dark with melodrama.

Characters like Hamlet’s mother, Gertrude (Alexandra Manick), or his stepfather, Claudius (Eric McGowan), are confirmed to be part of the “real” world, cold parents who have put Hamlet in an institution with Ophelia (Elizabeth Moss) and Doctors Rosencrantz (Fabiana Cabral) and Guildenstern (John McCargar).

Most of the dialogue from the original Hamlet is intact.  Polonius has become Ophelia and Laertes befuddled mother, Polonia (Elizabeth Ramirez), and some of the lines are repeated in mirroring scenes, but the story remains recognizable. The Calliope Project Theater Troupe has produced, despite experimental flourishes with wardrobe and lighting, a very traditional Hamlet.

Compared to Actors’ Shakespeare Project’s recent production of Pericles, the actors here deliver their Bard in careful, sometimes stilted speeches.  They don’t swap lines in more naturalistic dialogue, perhaps in keeping with their dry take on absurdism.  I was enormously impressed with Eric McGowan’s Laertes, though, who channels the passion and stress of the story with every movement and phrase. Moss also looks like she’s having a great deal of fun embodying the vulnerability of Ophelia.  Bernfield’s Hamlet, however, draws from a rage that has no bottom and is difficult to sympathize with much less watch.

Hamlet Asylum juggles a lot of upsetting elements like rape, suicide, and especially mental illness. These are handled in overt, disturbing ways, turning a tragedy into as bleak a journey as possible.  Yet hallucinations and apparent bi-polar disorder symptoms in the play feel more like a broad, Hollywood version of mental issues.  Despite the emotional intensity of the show, it doesn’t examine where violence
comes from so much as what it does when it’s already present.

The Calliope Project has produced a show that’s a brutal emotional work-out but succeeds most in its surface details.  The idea that Hamlet hallucinated most of the story for which he’s famous is an
aesthetically appealing one, but it carries the play only so far. While this premise is an interesting experiment, I only wish the rest of the show had pushed itself so far.

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