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March 31, 2003

Hamlet Dreams'

From: Chicago Sun Times, IL - Mar 31, 2003


Theater is essentially the art of conflict and resolution as seen through visual action. Any skilled playwright worth his or her salt recognizes that clearly defined stage movement can create a lasting impression on audiences far more readily than a single, well-crafted sentence.

David G. Zak begins his adaptation of Shakespeare's "Hamlet" with no words at all. Doomed lovers Ophelia (Candace Hart) and Hamlet (Robert Schleifer) share opposite ends of a bed. She sleeps peacefully as he composes what we later learn is the love sonnet that Polonius discovers.

Hamlet gently wakes her, she reads the letter and they share a kiss. It's one romantic moment before things become rotten in the state of Denmark.

It's a bold break from how the play usually begins. As such, "Hamlet Dreams" is not for the purist. Still, there is much to like and admire about the production, which condenses the action into a tight and fast-paced two hours without an intermission.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are a casualty of editing, but Zak --who also directs the show--has found a new layer of conflict to explore in the 400-year-old play and can't be bothered with minor characters.

Most of Denmark's court is deaf. The exceptions are Hamlet's friend Horatio (played here by a sympathetic Marc Lessman), Ophelia and Laertes' father, Polonius (Michael Lotke, who brings much needed humor to the tragedy) and Claudius (the appropriately conflicted yet villainous Joseph E. Hudson).

Claudius, who has murdered Hamlet's father, married Hamlet's mother and assumed the throne all before the play begins, has always been seen as an outsider. Hudson plays the character as a man in over his head, unable to understand the most basic goings-on of the kingdom without his translator (Susan Malone Sotnick).

It's also understandable why Hamlet would feel little kinship for his uncle and wish to avenge his father's murder. Neither uncle nor nephew is capable of understanding the other.

The conflict of deaf people increasingly at odds with the hearing world is certainly not a new subject in theater. "The Miracle Worker," William Gibson's 1959 play soon to be revived on Broadway, features Annie Sullivan literally bringing a deaf and blind Helen Keller kicking and screaming into the hearing world. Mark Medoff's "Children of a Lesser God" features a deaf woman defiantly refusing to communicate by any other means but sign language.

Both these works weren't written primarily for a deaf audience, though. Zak succeeds in creating a "Hamlet" that can be enjoyed by both deaf and hearing audiences.

To make the work accessible to those unfamiliar with American Sign Language, Zak employs the device of a Greek chorus with Beth Lipinski and Derek Czaplewski voicing the roles of Ophelia and Laertes from the stairs of the stage.

There is one notable exception. Ophelia's descent into madness is presented here without voicing. Hart has the arduous task of conveying to the hearing audience what she is signing. She is one of those rare actresses able to make an emotional connection without saying a word. Her sorrowful eyes and pained face reveal everything you would ever want to know about her character's long-suffering soul. Words become irrelevant and unnecessary.

The show stumbles in one area, though. Two actors share the role of Hamlet and therein lies the rub. As the voice of Hamlet, Aaron Preusse isn't merely Schleifer's translator. Both actors play every scene completely different. Preusse shouts lines in anger as Schleifer appears reserved in one; Schleifer overstates the manic madness of the character in another while his counterpart plays the same scene in a cold and calculating way. This "inner conflict" is only resolved at the play's end with Schleifer voicing Hamlet's last line "The rest is silence," which Preusse signs after a pause. It's two Hamlets for the price of one, but it's still one too many.

Despite this, the Bard would be proud of "Hamlet's Dreams," if for no other reason than Hart's memorable performance as Ophelia.




When: Thursdays at 7:30 p.m., Saturdays at 6 p.m. and Sundays at 2:30 p.m. through April 19

Where: Bailiwick Repertory Theatre, 1229 W. Belmont

Tickets: $20

Call: (773) 883-1090

Copyright 2003, Digital Chicago Inc.