by Sergei Burbank · August 18, 2015
Anthony P. Pennino’s I, Horatio, directed by Matthew Bayer, currently playing in the 2015 New York International Fringe Festival, is very much at home -- like many of his fellow productions, at its core is a rather straightforward (if off-beat) question: what would happen after the final lines of Hamlet are spoken, if the world of the play were to continue on?
I, Horatio opens in the immediate bloody aftermath of Hamlet’s conclusion. The familiar, vaunted closing lines quickly dissolve into contemporary speech, and the madcap race is on. Fortinbras (Peter Collier), a fey psychopath, is King Joffrey with a straight edge razor: far more interested in entertaining himself with the suffering of his subjects than ruling them well. Osric (Alexander Stine) is his willing lackey: all of the ostentation and obsequiousness which wilted under Prince Hamlet’s glare is allowed to bloom, and it merely feeds the perversions of the powerful. A bloody and traumatized Horatio (Blake Merriman) -- his prince’s last exhortation to tell his story ringing in his ears -- is exiled, given three days to flee King Fortinbras’ domain.
Instead, Horatio claims Hamlet’s remains from a fastidious bureaucrat (Collier), finds lodging with Nell (the resplendent Courtney Moors) -- an innkeeper who asks no questions, so long as there’s cash up front -- takes in a gimpy tragedian (Barry Sheppard) cast off from an acting troupe (yes, that troupe) fleeing abroad, and begins to plot his revolution. He kidnaps and tortures Osric, while preparing a play that will ensnare the new king, just as his beloved Hamlet’s play ensnared Claudius. How isn’t clear, and doesn’t matter -- Horatio is consumed with the fury of the righteous, and, like all idealists, knows that with the cause of the just on his side, he cannot fail. (His compatriots/prisoners are less sure.) As he begins to recount Hamlet’s story, the familiar lines of the play emerge.
I, Horatio is in some ways a prequel or origin story: Hamlet is recast not as a neutral script but instead one historian’s interpretation of events. Pennino toys with the idea of historical truth and idealized memory -- Horatio’s love for Hamlet makes him defend the indefensible, while others question everything from the high body count to basic rules of succession. The script expertly highlights the collective effort required between performer and audience to maintain the illusory power of a play.
The script and the cast have an enormous amount of fun along the way. With both fourth-wall-breaking gags and cross-pollination from other Shakespeare texts, I, Horatio evinces a profound command of Shakespeare’s world, while all of its jests come from a place of deep affection for the source material. The cast is game, and Moors and Stine especially shine: given focused bits of schtick, their precise comedy zings. Collier’s revolving door of various characters (in addition to Fortinbras) allow him to showcase his ability to believably inhabit disparate characters in short order. Merriman and Sheppard’s performances lend believability to an intense yet short-lived path of self-discovery between their characters.
Merriman’s heavy lifting -- straddling genres of slapstick and earnest tragedy -- is admirable. The character, however, is irreconcilable: loyal to the point of self-immolation, alternately authoritative and devoid of purpose, there is perhaps a reason Hamlet’s Horatio remains off-center, an audience for Hamlet’s musings, while not the source of many of his own. He is both necessary and impossible.