iHamlet at the Philly Fringe
Jennifer Kramer of PlayShakespeare.com
September 9, 2014
In Philadelphia, FringeArts is one of the local organizations dedicated to supporting, showcasing, and expanding the city's art community – a mission annually capped off with their city-wide Festival. For 2014, the Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre offers their production of iHamlet. This modern adaptation by Robin Malan explores the play almost solely through Hamlet's lines, and the distillation of Shakespeare's tragedy allows director David O'Connor and star Melissa Dunphy to portray the evolution of Hamlet's internal conflict as a riveting one-woman show. Like the text itself, the staging is strikingly stripped down. The set consists of an old-fashioned armchair and a single large and ornately-framed mirror suspended upstage, contrasting with the humble wooden table holding all of Hamlet's stuff on the now-barren thrust stage of the Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre. Dunphy's silver-dyed hair, lip piercing, and tattoos are the only augmentations for Hamlet's simple contemporary dress: the Prince of Denmark spends the majority of the production in black jeans, sneakers, and a charcoal tank top, quickly ditching a black blazer and eventually donning a grey hoodie. Dunphy's Hamlet would be an achievement in a traditional production; in iHamlet, she effortlessly transforms the compilation of Hamlet's lines into what is essentially an hour-long soliloquy. Dunphy deftly articulates the mental and philosophical effects of Hamlet's many conflicts sans external stimuli while ensuring that Hamlet's reactions are relatable and recognizable. Her Hamlet is not sensationally "mad", but is clearly troubled, suffering from depression, manic episodes, and anxiety exacerbated by the turbulent environment in which he is embroiled. Dunphy handles his mood swings with aplomb, allowing the flow of his thoughts to skip between differing, often violently opposed emotions, while still maintaining a natural progression. Her Hamlet, who begins the production back to the audience, moodily playing exercises and fragments of songs on his viola, later addresses them quite comfortably in many slyly funny asides or as stand-ins for his friends. He reads his love-letter to Ophelia with a sardonic self-deprecation, rages at the perfidy of women, and weeps piteously at her grave. After Polonius' death, he quickly covers his chagrin with a string of wordplay and a musical pastiche, but reacts to the abrupt appearance of Yorick's skull being tossed on stage with contemplative discomfort. He seems genuinely moved by the Ghost's plight, bloodthirsty to revenge Claudius' treachery, filled with self-loathing that he cannot muster the mental reserves to carry out his father's charge; at last he achieves an inner calm in his "the readiness is all" speech. In Dunphy's portrayal, Hamlet is still very much Hamlet when all else has been stripped away but words, words, words. O'Connor's direction strikes a good balance between allowing Hamlet's thoughts to range unfettered and subtly augmenting the production's metatextual nature. The production begins with the first of many unexpected (and thus appropriate) renditions of "the time is out of joint," which trails off into confusion; Hamlet berates himself to "speak the speech... trippingly on the tongue" and attempts a number of his famous soliloquies, then gives an entertaining nod to the production's title by consulting his iPhone on the frequently contested phrase "too too sullied flesh." (Siri, incidentally, comes down firmly on the side of the First Folio with "Did you mean 'solid flesh'?") For all that Hamlet's are the only words and actions, O'Connor maintains a sense of ambiguity as to whether the events of Shakespeare's play are happening concurrently, in some metaphorical way, or only in Hamlet's head. Sinister echoes of the viola herald supernatural episodes. Hamlet sees the Ghost in the blinding glare of the spotlights, which cast everything else into shadow, while his greeting of "I'll call thee Hamlet!" is addressed directly into the mirror, eliciting any number of interesting interpretations. It is the betrayal of this ambiguity, otherwise consistently maintained, that mars the ending. Having come to a sort of resigned peace with himself and his circumstances, realizing “the readiness is all” and at last completing “the time is out of joint: O cursed spite / that ever I was born to set it right,” both Hamlet and the audience are ambushed by the climax of the play: Hamlet collapses in agony from an apparent stab wound, uttering only a single choice expletive before dying. To be killed by an invisible assassin eschewing Laertes' poison, denied a chance to revenge himself on Claudius, and then dragged off by that fell sergeant death without managing to get in the last word (or, rather, 227 of them) seems out-of-character for both Hamlet and the production as a whole. Hamlet's shocking end does not appear to offer any commentary on Shakespeare's play or the action of the previous hour, a curious choice for an adaptation that until now has remained in close conversation with the original text. But this odd swerve does not detract from the quality of the rest of the production. The Fringe Festival is meant to serve as the "culmination of provocative contemporary work" in Philadelphia's art community, and Dunphy and O’Connor’s iHamlet certainly qualifies. Their fine transformative work says much about the original, echoing Shakespeare's words in its own modern voice.