There are as many versions of Shakespeare's melancholy Dane as there are players. There's Hamlet the frightfully articulate frustrated poet (Kenneth Branagh), Hamlet the action hero (Mel Gibson), Hamlet the skillfully sulky trust-fund kid (Ethan Hawke), and, most famously, Hamlet the Oedipal wreck (Laurence Olivier).
Now, if you're in the mood for Hamlet as a psychotic telenovela diva with gender identity issues, then by all means catch REV's production. which will be performed Sunday, July 9; Friday, July 14; and Saturday, July 15, at Laurel Hill Cemetery in East Falls before moving to the Emlen Physick Estate in Cape May, where it will be produced from July 19 through 29.
A creepily campy affair featuring a bafflingly hysterical, out-of-control lead performance by REV cofounder Rudy Caporaso, this Hamlet seems to owe far more to Joan Crawford and Pee-Wee Herman than Olivier or Derek Jacobi.
The audience at Saturday night's opening performance seemed to have a great time, and it gave Caporaso and company enthusiastic applause.
I couldn't stand it.
It's not because I object to an experimental or iconoclastic treatment of the play. I'm no Elizabethan purist. Nor do I think Caporaso, who also is artistic director of the Cape May Shakespeare Festival, is an untalented performer. Far from it.
I simply can't abide the interpretation imposed on the play by Caporaso and REV co-founder Rosemary Hay, who directed the production.
Their Hamlet is little more than banal reiteration of Olivier's Freudian interpretation from the 1940s, but with the volume amped up to 11, Spinal Tap style.
The story is well-known: A young crown prince sent to study theology and philosophy at one of Europe's finest universities, Hamlet rushes home to Denmark when his father dies suddenly. The funereal tears are hardly dry when the king's brother, Claudius (Brian McManus, Carthaginians with REV), marries Hamlet's mother, Queen Gertrude (Hillary Spector, REV's A Midsummer Night's Dream), sending Hamlet into a tailspin.
Has Hamlet, who suspects his uncle killed his dad, gone mad? Or is he pretending he's mad while plotting revenge?
Olivier's Hamlet was a paragon of nobility who is undone by his conflicting unconscious desires. Caporaso strips away Hamlet's upbringing, his civility, and his nobility, and gives us a feral child in the throes of a psychotic hissy fit.
This Hamlet is a cheap soap opera hysteric. He stamps his feet like a 2-year-old, he drops to the ground and tears at his hair, tears at the grass. Gone is all his learning. Instead, Hamlet screams his lines, then he simply screeches, like an inarticulate infant deprived of his pacifier.
REV's production reduces one of literature's most poetic and erudite speakers to a babbling fool.
Is this all a ruse? Is this supposed to be a satire? I couldn't tell.
Caporaso, who received rave notices last year for his production of A Midsummer Night's Dream in Cape May, does explore one interesting angle when he plays up the homoerotic subtext in Hamlet's friendships with his male pals, most notably Horatio (Tyler Houchins, A Christmas Carol at Walnut Street Theatre). Yet this, too, is taken too far.
Finally, I also was disappointed by the venue. REV Theatre Company's site-specific outdoor performances are billed as immersive experiences, yet there was no sign of any art production at Laurel Hill and very little in the way of costume or lighting design. So much more could have been done with the cemetery's ambiance.