Writers, musicians and painters have been riffing off of Hamlet probably since the play premiered -- indeed, even Hamlet was a riff of something else. Now it's Nathaniel Green's turn to be inspired by Shakespeare's brooding, semi-Oedipal, over the top work in his emotionally powerful play Searching for Hamlet. Hank (Ralph Gaeta) is a struggling actor who's been handed the role, at last. His lovely and practical girlfriend Fran (Tamara Hummel) is playing Ophelia. Though Fran acts and paints as a hobby and still has her day job, Hank believes one must be an artist 24/7 and throws himself into the part. This is a mistake, as his father, the founder of a successful trucking company, has been recently and mysteriously murdered. Hank's mother, Gayle, has married Hank Sr.'s partner, the too obviously named Claude (indeed, everyone is too obviously named). As he loses himself in the role, Hank becomes delusionally certain that Claude bumped off his Dad to take over the company, that Claude and Gayle had been having an affair, and that his friends are plotting against him. Catastrophe is inevitable.
Green, who's also a musician, layers themes and subthemes on the bare bones of Shakespeare's play; disappointed and estranged fathers and sons are one, art vs. real life is another. Bud Courtney's Claude was a beer-guzzling working stiff who harries his stepson about getting a real job and making real money; he may be a lout but it's a stretch from lout to calculating murderer. Melanie Collup's Gayle was about as dumb and overinvolved with her son as Gertrude is with hers. She couldn't be around Hank without putting her hands all over him, stroking his shoulders, his hair, his face, as if he were a little boy with a perpetually skinned knee. Green, a lanky gentleman whose eyebrows, goatee and long face recalled Vincent Price, played Lon, Hamlet's director and Fran's father, who's taken on Hank as a surrogate son, as he's alienated from his real son (well-played by Jennifer McCue, who also played two other roles -- as a fellow actor and a chap hired by Claude to spy, Guildenstern-like, on Hank). When Paul Hummel showed up as the Ghost of Hank Sr. it was understood that Hank Jr.'s paranoia was in full swing, and there was worse to come. Maggie Lynn Hall deftly handled her multiple roles, as Hank's fellow-actor and another spy. Tamara Hummel was luminous and heartbreaking as Fran, who must look on with despair and desperation as the man she loves is taken over by his craziness; she would indeed make a great Ophelia. The cast was earnest and passionate, even when the action veered, a bit, into illogic. In this day and age only The Sopranos or an action movie could get away with how Hamlet ends up, and Green's solution is a little awkward. Searching for Hamlet's good cast handleed it with as much aplomb as possible.
As a director Green was mindful of tempo and rhythm, and slower, more pensive scenes were sometimes followed by fast-paced ones; the scene where Hank discovers that Hall and McCue's characters are spying on him was nearly farcical. The dialog, laced, of course, with quotes from Hamlet, was intelligent and rewarded careful attention. The set design, also done by Green, was simple, with only a few chairs and small tables, and curtains parted on a view of the Manhattan skyline. Erin Puckey's mid-key lighting design was also unadorned. Searching for Hamlet was worth seeing for its words, and the remarkable cast that brought them to life.
Copyright 2004 Arlene McKanic
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