HAMLET (REV Theatre Company): “For the apparel oft proclaims the man” Fashion-forward styling updates HAMLET
Every year, directors across the country find innovative ways to update the world of Shakespeare. Some productions succeed with grace, while others evoke distaste among audiences. Fortunately, REV Theatre Company’s HAMLET--performed on the most exclusive burial grounds in Philadelphia, Laurel Hill Cemetery--avoids the entrapments of an overly modern turned cheesy spin on HAMLET.
The secret, of course, lies in the details. Incorporating the obelisks and the graves at large into the stage of the show emphasize the immediacy of death for these characters and the audience.
This REV production uses subtle humor, a distinct departure from the riotous productions of their Graveyard Cabaret s eries. Some of the best gems center around Bob Weick, who captivates the audience as Ghost, Player King, and Gravedigger, wearing an “I Am Your Father” T-shirt in his opening appearance as the Player King and singing the BeeGees’ “Stayin’ Alive” as he digs Ophelia’s grave.
One of the most striking aspects of this production centers on the way clothing intertwines with character. In a departure from the extravagance of the Elizabethan garb or the dark monochromatic color scheme of many current HAMLET renditions, REV’s production utilizes modern and colorful clothing with the occasional touch of Elizabethan affluence.
The styling creates a thought-provoking collision between the classical and contemporary. For example, Mark Knight as Polonius wears a modern grey suit and vest, but also a ruffled Elizabethan collar—playing up the odd, contradictory nature of Ophelia’s father.
Last week, when one of my editors in Philadelphia asked me to join him for the regional premiere of MOTHER EMANUEL: AN AMERICAN MUSICAL PLAY, I wanted to refuse. I had never told him that my family and I have been members of the African Methodist Episcopal church (A.M.E.) for decades, nor did I tell him that the mere thought of someone re-conceptualizing the horrific massacre of the Emanuel Nine as a musical initially put me at great unease. When I first thought of this genre, my mind went to Broadway: big flashing lights, overdesigned sets, and songs about the “one who got away.”
MOTHER EMANUEL, conceived and directed by Rajendra Ramoon Maharaj and co-authored by Maharaj, Christian Lee Branch, and Adam Mace, graciously avoids all of these tropes. We were not exposed to overblown dramatic subplots, extravagant musical numbers, not even any references to the murderer.
While set during the fateful Bible study on June 17, 2015, this show doesn’t look to incorporate the traditional framework of an A.M.E. Bible class to structure its production. Instead, MOTHER EMANUEL presents itself as a 95-minute worship service. Gospel hymns—including “Amazing Grace” and “The Old Rugged Cross”—carry this production.
The director enhances the show with a variety of choreographed dances, from stylized West African to liturgical movements—even a little shimmy for the kids. MOTHER EMANUEL’s staging features a thrust set, allowing the cast to interact with audience members, who are referred to throughout the production as “Mother Emanuel”—the church body. During his opening remarks, Maharaj encouraged everyone in attendance to sing, dance, and praise the Lord at will. The musical incorporates praise breaks into the narrative—providing several well-timed jokes—and invites the audience to participate in these moments, both explicitly and structurally.