ARTS

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February 10, 2009

Roberts’s hamfisted Hamlet leaves no doubt whether play should be or not be

The white poster affixed to the back wall of the stage with “Hamlet” emblazoned across it in red tempera paint sums up the play’s aesthetic: We’re looking to be arty on a budget. Unfortunately, Guy Roberts—founder of the Prague Shakespeare Festival—lacks the artistry to pull off his one-man adaptation of Shakespeare’s masterpiece.

Bucktown’s Gorilla Tango Theater is a mom-and-pop operation that brings affordable, quality entertainment to the gritty neighborhood and offers exposure to local talent. The theater doesn’t aim to compete with Chicago’s mainstream theater scene but exists, rather, to supplement it.

Gorilla Tango’s modest stage and minimalist furnishings provide an intimate—if limiting—backdrop for performance pieces of all types. Hamlet’s set, a lone table and chair sitting stage left, seemed appropriate enough for a one-man show, but Roberts took little advantage of the freedom such a sparse backdrop offered his performance. His dramatic use of the chair had powerful potential, but a tendency to overact left him swinging it with painfully artificial savagery. Had he been more convincingly distraught, the approach would have been infinitely more effective.

In fact, Roberts could not effectively portray any of Shakespeare’s 18 most memorable characters, though a few of his performances struck familiar, if jarring, chords. Any wonky, glasses-wearing university student would identify immediately with Roberts’ Horatio, and Hamlet himself was reminiscent of the inebriated Sir Hiss from Disney’s Robin Hood. His characterizations drew laughs in the wrong places and created vacuums of silence where there should have been comic relief.

Roberts did, however, happen upon a brilliant moment of genuine candidness in his address to Yorick. Perched on the edge of nothing, he made a respectable attempt at redeeming himself by communicating a tender affiliation with the long-gone jester’s imaginary skull. In this disarming, unaffected speech, Roberts was at his most natural.

Now, about that “bloody” poster. The purpose of the poster was, for the bulk of the performance, quite unclear. Then, Polonius was offed. Up went his name in bright, bold lettering. The list grew with each successive death and the audience shared an awkward moment when Roberts nearly forgot the second “r” in Gertrude.

The show’s Twilight Zone–like sound effects and the absurd use of a strobe light did little more than serve as an added distraction to the already troubled performance. The strangely mod feel clashed with the eloquence of the script and induced a confused chuckle whenever a scene change was signaled.

Roberts’s Hamlet is an object lesson in the dangers of extreme economy in theater. It would come as no surprise, then, if King Hamlet’s Ghost himself came back once more to scold the ne’er-do-well who came up with the idea to cram the Bard’s masterpiece into a one-man show and let such ill-equipped parties run with it.