by Collin McConnell · June 10, 2014
Indie Artists on New Plays #110 Collin McConnell looks at Short Life of Trouble playing at Access Theater Fabric drapes to make the suggestion of a tent, the room lit only with fairy lights strung among the canopy. I sit with a bourbon and lemonade as performers slowly fill the stage, playing old folk songs (on a guitar, mandolin, and banjo). A coffin made of unfinished wood lingers upstage.
Folk Hamlet, I think is a good way to describe this production. Shakespeare's text and story is the basis for the evening, though it is littered with bluegrass music and a decent amount of southern gothic literature (Faulkner, fittingly). With the setting and the music, this production would live nicely outdoors at the edge of the woods along the bank of the river, a fire crackling nearby (and while I certainly was transported, I enjoyed the sensation so much I couldn't help but occasionally wish for a cool breeze and the sounds of crickets).
Clocking in at 90 minutes, that the story is so much more than just clear is remarkable. Nothing here is rushed, and everything is used. Creator / writer / adaptor Valerie Redd has woven a smartly rich tapestry of words and sounds, brought so beautifully to life under the direction of Eric Powell Holm. (Only briefly did I feel the play lulled, and lulled only in momentarily abandoning the conceits of the production [the music and the literature] so as to get at the heart of Hamlet itself - a fault I can hardly call a fault at all.) Holm is playing with magic here: there is never a wasted moment, a wasted space, and yet there is silence, stillness, emptiness - he has dug an earthiness into the production, so rich, though with the sense it is being told around the campfire, beneath the stars. The strongly singular focus crafted through the use of one of the most famous plays (so famously mined for any and every scrap able to be pondered upon by academics and all manner of Shakespeare lovers) is a true testament to Redd's understanding of the work she is using and the work she is making - and to how clearly she understands why Hamlet still gets under our skin today.
To that singular focus: Death. Loss, but really, death. The use of the southern gothic literature (and the heavy cutting) focuses the story to bear a weight down upon what it means to truly lose someone that I have never felt in any other production of Hamlet I have seen. The ghost lingers - at first a frightening, imposing shadow, but then a man, a mystery walked straight out of the noir, face masked with a black cap and cigarette protruding out his mouth (played with such strain as one might imagine the dead must be under by John C. Egan, who also makes a fantastic turn as the gravedigger). But beyond his physical presence, he lingers - everyone is talking about death, singing about loss. The pressure on Hamlet is unbearable.
Beyond the beauty in the retelling of this story, all the artists involved are doing excellent work. The ensemble of actors are across the board brilliant, though stand outs include Egan (as mentioned above), Michael Markham's Claudius (for the clarity in the swiftness of his speech, while plunging the depths of Claudius' conflicted soul), and Brendan Spieth's Hamlet (who teeters in the delicate balance of craftiness and distraught madness with a playful craze that is wonderfully unsettling). Anastasia Romantsova's set easily lifts us out of the city, letting us down into rural America, while the sweet simplicity of Christina Rene Polhemus' costumes land us in our (relatively) recent past (the 1930's, according to the show's description). The world is populated with the essence of summer, yet haunted by the shadows of the past as illuminated through the lighting by Michael McGee.
That it feels like summer should spark a question in those with a passing familiarity of Hamlet - that play is set in winter. This is one of the much more subtle hints that this isn't quite the whole of Shakespeare's tale as we have come to know it. There are other, much larger changes - shifts, omissions - that are surprisingly not upsetting or detracting, or that even feel to be a forced attempt to simply do something different (at least not for me, as a deep lover of the classic). Rather, these differences help remove us from the original while plunging us deep into that singularity - that this too too solid flesh will melt, that we will lose a father, and our father lost a father, that father lost, lost his...
that death is coming.