Playing at Insanity and the Art of Self-Aware Fangirling: A Conversation About The Public Theater's HAMLET
In case you missed the pictures on Instagram, Kelli and Emily recently went to see The Public Theater's production of Hamlet, starring Oscar Isaac in the titular role. Without further ado (about nothing), here are their thoughts, feelings, and fangirlings about the play...
Emily: So Hamlet is this little off-Broadway play by this playwright named William Shakespeare.
Kelli: A real up-and-comer.
Emily: You might recognize him from his work on Julius Caesar earlier this summer. His work is showing a lot of promise, and I look forward to whatever he comes out with next. But okay, so like, let's be real. For like two minutes. Hamlet is Hamlet. We all know what it is. We all know what happens in it. Everyone dies (spoiler). So why did we go see this particular Hamlet production, Kelli?
Kelli: Okay. I guess we should get this out of the way. The reason we went to see this production is because of Oscar Isaac. And Keegan-Michael Key. But Key was honestly an added bonus, because we were gonna see this before he was even cast as Horatio.
Emily: I wish I had told Key that I show the Sexy Vampires sketch like every semester in my classes. But he'd probably think that was weird.
Kelli: No he wouldn't. He would be adorable and sweet and excited because that was what he was like WHEN HE TOOK A SELFIE WITH US.
Emily: Oh yeah, we should also get that out of the way. WE MET THEM. THEY WERE ADORBS. FANGIRLING.
Kelli: THEY WERE SO GREAT, LSKADFJALSKFD -- Okay, back to the play. So, I guess maybe we should start with Oscar Isaac's performance, since that was the main draw for us?
Emily: Yeah, so he was great. Moving on.
Emily: No but really. I know this is pretty much understood, but I just want to establish this anyway. There's acting. And then there's Shakespearean acting. They're two different beasts. So just because you're awesome at acting (which we both think Oscar Isaac is) doesn't mean you'll nail Shakespeare acting. But he does. And this isn't his first time doing it, so that shouldn't be surprising.
Kelli: Yes. Oscar Isaac was also in the Public Theater's production of Romeo and Juliet ALL THE WAY BACK in 2007.
Emily: WITH LAUREN AMBROSE. LIGHT OF MY LIFE.
Kelli: I wish we could have seen that.
Emily: Same. I'll bet it was amazing. But, okay, he was great in this. That's our thesis. What is our evidence? Cause, like, great can mean a lot of different things.
Kelli: EVIDENCE: I'm going to admit right now that I've never seen any production of Hamlet. I've never seen it on stage, and I've never seen it on film--unless you count The Lion King. I have, however, read the play, and I've listened to it on tape, and I have to say that I never really felt like I could understand what the fuck was going on in our sweet prince's head until I saw this production. Isaac (yes, I'm going to call him that to sound professional even though I just want to call him cardamom blessing) has a way of really illuminating what Hamlet is feeling, even when he's saying the opposite of that--which he is, for most of the play. He is one of those rare actors who can deliver the same line with either intense sincerity or total dishonesty, and be able to convey the difference to the audience. Which is particularly impressive when we're dealing with Shakespeare, since the words themselves are like a puzzle.
Emily: Speaking of the way he delivers his lines, part of what makes a play like Hamlet (and a part like Hamlet) so difficult to tackle is that people come to the play with a high familiarity with the lines of the play and therefore preconceived ideas of what the lines mean and how they should be read. Unlike you, I have seen basically every film version of Hamlet ever created and multiple stage versions, but I still agree with you that Oscar Isaac gave me new understanding of the words he was speaking. And maybe that's the mark of a successful Shakespearean actor, really. It's not just understanding the words you're saying and acting them rather than just reciting them. You also have to breathe new life into them. Because otherwise... why do this same familiar thing over again?
Kelli: Right. Because even though we know we're watching a play that's been done hundreds of times over, we need to believe that these characters are saying what they're saying for the very first time.
Emily: So let's talk about the most famous monologue of all time then.
Emily: Or not 2B.
Kelli: Yeah so. You told me something interesting about that monologue that I didn't realize before, which you learned about in your HAMLET CLASS.
Emily: My undergrad Shakespeare professor Dr. James Hirsh lectured this at me, so I'm not trying to take credit for this. But he explained to us that the really interesting thing about the "to be or not to be" soliloquy is that it's not really a soliloquy at all because Hamlet is aware people are listening in to him, and so the whole speech is a ruse to make them believe he is crazy, just like the other scenes in the play where he's running around acting crazy. I think this is one of many ways to interpret this scene, mind you, but it's compelling, because what he says in this moment does not really connect with his thoughts and actions in the previous scene, where he is getting amped about putting together a play to "catch the conscience of the king." So this suggests that this famous monologue that is often taken out of context is actually false, and Hamlet does not want to kill himself but is only pretending to be in that state of mind. Do we feel like Oscar Isaac played this scene that way? Or is there any way to know?
Kelli: My impression was that Isaac was playing the scene honestly--especially because after he delivers the monologue, he seems to jump up as though he realizes people are coming and needs to get back into fake crazy mode (not knowing there was anyone listening).
Emily: We should note that the play gives us a key into when Oscar Isaac is in his fake crazy mode.
Kelli: Yes, I was about to say.
Emily: And that key is no pants.
Kelli: The best key. But yes--when he delivers the monologue, he's lying down on the table in the center of the stage fully-clothed, and from what I remember, when he finishes and jumps up, he rips his pants off again. Because people are coming into the room, and he's like, oh fuck, I don't look crazy, and then he takes the pants off.
Emily: Yes. From an aesthetic perspective, I can't imagine them doing the speech without the pants. It would be a bit distracting for a moment that is supposed to have some gravity to it.
Kelli: Anyway, pants or no pants, the way Isaac delivers this speech isn't the same way he delivers the rest of his fake crazy lines. I think there's a sort of exhaustion to the way he plays this part, and it's totally different from the manic energy he brings both before and after it. I think this communicates what it's like when a person is going through something particularly difficult--in this case, grief--and they're channeling everything they have into a project--in this case, revenge--but there are those moments in between the action, when a person is waiting for the next step of the plan, and suddenly they're alone, and that's when that grief comes creeping back in.
Emily: Absolutely. He played it differently than how I've seen other Hamlets play it in the past, but, again, that's what we want when we go to see Hamlet. Furthermore, Shakespeare leaves room for actors to do that. I didn't know the guy or anything, but I imagine Shakespeare wanted to leave room for actors to interpret scenes and lines in different ways. So I think both are valid. If Shakespeare wanted all actors to play Hamlet the exact same way, he would have written stage directions. But there are almost no stage directions ever in Shakespeare. There's a reason for that. Shakespeare gives actors and the director a bit of wiggle room to play, which might seem surprising to some.
Kelli: Yeah. The most specific stage directions I can recall from reading Shakespeare are like
Emily: Haha basically.
Kelli: Yeah, some of the decisions here were pretty interesting. Like the part where Hamlet spits in his hand and shoves it in Ophelia's face. Good stuff.
Emily: Yes, I love that there's room to do stuff like that. They made a lot of interesting decisions in this play. Like the cozy sweater, which actually ended up being pretty important.
Kelli: Yeah, I loved that touch.
Emily: When we first saw the pictures of Hamlet, we were kinda joking that Oscar Isaac looked so cozy in his sweater.
Kelli: Twitter was all in a tither over it, tbh.
Emily: But this ends up being something important Ophelia returns to him.
Kelli: Which she's wearing for most of the first half of the play.
Emily: So then when he wears it in the following scenes, it's like a reminder of Ophelia spurning him. It connects them, which is cool because it always bothers me that Hamlet and Ophelia have like ZERO SCENES together except when he's being a dick to her.
Kelli: Yeah, definitely. It reminds us that there was some kind of actual affection and love that they shared with each other before all of this. They had an entire relationship that we didn't get to see. He wrote her these letters like, 'never doubt my love' and shit. But all we see is GET THEE TO A NUNNERY, BITCH.
Emily: Which is really about his mom issues, but that's a whole 'nother blog...
Kelli: Do we want to talk about Ophelia?
Emily: Sure! Ophelia is a rough role to play because she's pretty much everyone's punching bag. But this Ophelia, played by Gayle Rankin, seemed tougher to me. Did she come off that way to you?
Kelli: Yes, definitely. The way she dealt with her father, especially, seemed a lot stronger than the way I interpreted Ophelia from the text, and I liked it a lot because I felt like even though she was going along with what the dudes in her life told her to do, she wasn't exactly sad about it the way I'd always imagined--she was pissed. She seems really angry, and rightfully so, for most of the play.
Emily: Right, but she's in a position where she can't really do anything about it because she's a woman and shit's bad for women. But the fact that she seems to know that and is angry about it is a nice touch. I really liked her.
Kelli: Me too. I felt like I understood her character, too, in a way I never did before. And I thought that the way her death played out was particularly powerful. It was one of a few moments during the play where I was holding my breath. And I love that feeling that you get when you're watching a show, and it's one of the things that I love so much about live theatre--there is this tension that comes with watching characters lose control over themselves that is truly palpable. And because you're watching a real person do it in real time, it makes you feel like you can't breathe.
Emily: Oh yeah. Live theatre is the best... even though we had a lot of really obnoxious people in our audience.
Kelli: Halfway through this really incredible, gorgeously staged moment, where there's that pin-drop type of silence throughout the entire theatre... This fucking woman in the row in front of us leans over to her friend and says, "DOES THIS HAPPEN IN THE PLAY????"
Emily: Yeah I wanted to kill her.
Kelli: Because yeah, it's a brutal moment, but she didn't even WHISPER, and bitch, what are you talking about?! YES, IT HAPPENS IN THE PLAY. THIS IS THE PLAY.
Emily: YOU ARE CURRENTLY AT THE PLAY.
Kelli: WELCOME TO THE PLAY.
Emily: Okay, so moving on to something entirely different, I want to talk about the humor in the play? Can we do that?
Emily: So Shakespeare's tragedies always have a ton of comedy in them as well. But I don't think I've ever LOL'ed at Hamlet before, and I definitely laughed a lot during the first half of this production.
Kelli: Yeah. It was hilarious. And not just the the characters meant to serve as comedic relief, but everyone else, too.
Emily: Yeah the whole cast had great chemistry with each other, which helps with comedic delivery, when everyone is playing off each other so well. Also, Keegan-Michael Key. They did a great job working in his physical comedy. You know what moment I'm talking about.
Kelli: Yeah. I think I read an interview with him somewhere where he talks about that moment and how the director was like "we have to do this, sorry." Lolol. Because a huge part of his draw is obviously how funny he is, and I guess it would be a crime to have him in the show without working that in somehow. And it really worked. The entire audience was dying.
Emily: Everyone should know that KEY IS A TRAINED SHAKESPEAREAN ACTOR, OK. And he does a great job throughout the whole play.
Kelli: Oh yeah! He was great. It's just that Horatio doesn't get a whole lot to do until the end.
Emily: Right. And people want to see him. Oh should we maybe say what it is he did?
Kelli: NO. THE PLAY IS SOLD OUT, BUT NO SPOILERS.
Emily: Yeah, sorry. I feel kinda like we're gloating by writing this because you can't go see this play. It's sold out. Also even if you got tickets to this play, you might not get to see this play because they canceled some of the performances.
Kelli: We ain't sorry.
Emily: Oh so, what we're talking about is this: Key plays the king in the play within the play, and so he dies. But he dies for like 10 minutes. And it's hilarious. And you'll never get to see it.
Kelli: He dies like 14 times. With a lot of sound effects.
Emily: Yes, it was great. I love him.
Kelli: And adding to the greatness of this scene is the excellent timing of Roberta Colindrez, because she stands at his death bed waiting for him to die. And by the end of it, she is so impatient and bored. And we sort of get this other side to the play within the play - like the King player is taking up way too much time and is obviously trying to steal the show, and Colindrez' player is so fucking annoyed.
Emily: Right, which makes sense because they're this traveling theatre group, so shit like this would happen.
Kelli: Yes. I loved it.
Emily: They got into the heads of those extremely minor characters and thought "WHAT DO THESE PEOPLE WANT?" And they nailed it.
Kelli: And I just want to mention as a sidebar, Colindrez is really fantastic throughout. My eyes were on her whenever she was an active part of a scene.
Emily: Yes, I love that they cast a female Rosencrantz.
Kelli: Do I have a crush on her? Maybe.
Emily: OMG. Too much fangirling.
Kelli: I have a crush on everyone in this play.
Emily: Look, okay, we said from the beginning that we were fangirls. But we're really intelligent and self-aware fangirls, so you can't make fun of us.
Kelli: I'm Trash And I Know It: A Memoir.
Emily: Yes. Anything else you want to discuss before I wrap this up? It's a four hour play so there was obviously a lot to cover. I feel like this blog entry needs two intermissions.
Kelli: What did you think of the modern set and costumes? Did it add anything? Did it distract you?
Emily: I think they were going with minimalism for a lot of this. There was only one major set piece, a table. And I think it was less that the play was modern and more that they didn't want costuming to get in the way of the story.
Kelli: Unfortunately, we were at a strange angle so we couldn't really see into the bathroom either.
Emily: Yes, so people enter and exit from a bathroom a lot. Which I'm sure meant something, but I don't really know because I couldn't see it.
Kelli: And from what I read later, I think there were a few things that went on in the bathroom in the background.
Emily: I don't think seeing into the bathroom would make or break the play for me. It wasn't like a set piece. It was just a bathroom that was there already.
Kelli: But I did think it was hilarious that Claudius was in the bathroom during the King death scene in the play within the play. And right after it finishes, we hear the toilet flush and he walks out.
Emily: Yeah... that was odd. Haha.
Kelli: Well that way they couldn't get a read on his reaction. And I'm not sure how that changes things. But TBH, Hamlet, it was a dumb idea to think he would look especially guilty while watching a fake death scene. Like... he did it. Did you really need to go through all of this trouble?
Emily: Oh well, Hamlet makes stupid decisions throughout the whole play. And that's why everyone dies.
Kelli: As a final note, I just want to say this was my favorite show I've ever gone to, and I would tell everyone to go to it too but you CAN'T. Unless you already have tickets. In which case, enjoy.
Emily: Yes, if you have tickets, then do what you were planning on doing before you read this.
Kelli: And wait afterwards to meet the cast because they come out and nobody else waits. It's very easy. Trust us, we're professionals.
Emily: Yeah, professional fangirls.
Hamlet is playing at The Public Theatre in NYC through September 3, but it's already sold out, so good luck with that.
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The authors of this blog are four women with opinions about pop culture. That's all you really need to know.