Hamlet the Hip-Hopera

by Anthony P. Pennino · August 20, 2015

hamlet the hip hopera

Dan Katz-Zeiger, Adam Bangser, Montel Yancy | Laurie Rabin

Feast Productions and Tucker Delaney-Winn’s Hamlet the Hip-Hopera! adheres closely to Shakespeare’s plot with the interpolation of, as the title suggests, rap music and with a severe culling of events to fit a one-hour-and-forty-minute running time. The show’s twin highlights, however, are James Sawyer and Virginia Hamilton who play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern respectively as well as a number of other parts (including sharing duties as Osric). They shine in every scene, in every moment they have. Future producers could do a lot worse than casting them in the title roles of Tom Stoppard’s play or, indeed, in an original comic two-hander crafted just for them. The rest of the production is more of a mixed bag. 

The ambitions on display are both great and admirable. But the show is like a rodeo rider who has decided to ride not one but two bulls at the same time: sooner or later – probably sooner – one of the bulls is going to throw you. Trying to integrate hip-hop into the world of Hamlet and honor the integrity of both – in other words, not to do some stage version of No Fear Shakespeare – is no mean feat. There are moments in the show that soar. There are moments in the show that are leaden. And there seems to be neither rhyme nor reason as to what works and what does not. Sometimes, the script hews very closely to the original and fails to excite while at other times offers clarity. Similarly, there are moments when the show frees itself from the source material and engages whereas at other moments it fails to light a spark. For instance, the production is quite deft with Hamlet’s II, ii, but ill at ease with III, i. 

The actors, other than those aforementioned, find moments to shine, but again not consistently. Jessie Cannizzaro (a feisty and active Ophelia) displays good comedic chops in the first half but fails to connect as the tale takes a darker turn. Conversely, Kimberlee Walker (a cool Gertrude) does not register in the first three acts, but once Hamlet enters her bed chamber, she makes the role her own. Delaney-Winn -- who wears a number of hats as playwright, producer, music director, and Hamlet – struggles as well. When the role calls for him to be the Hamlet we know, he is wooden, but when called upon to become a Hamlet/Eminem hybrid, he is far more animated. 

The music by Charles Laubacher, Michael Markowski, and Jeff Nicholson could do more than it does here. At its best, hip hop is a roar of rage at an unjust and apathetic society, it is poetry, it is revolution. Too often here, the songs’ main purpose appears to be exposition (following on the heels of Shakespeare’s own exposition). In 1964, Grigori Kozintsev found the revolutionary spirit of Hamlet in a Marxist-Leninist context. In strikes me that in 2015, the revolutionary spirit of Hamlet can be expressed through the vitality of hip-hop. This work has not fully realized yet those possibilities. 

Ultimately, this current production of Hamlet the Hip-Hopera! still seems to be on its developmental journey. As stated above, its ambitions are great and may yet be realized down the road. Which is fine. That is what FringeNYC is for.





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