Defiant Theatre

at the Greenview Arts Center

It takes chutzpah to start a new theater company in Chicago these days–do we really need another one? It takes even more chutzpah to launch the company with a production of Hamlet–do we really need another one?

The Defiant Theatre’s Hamlet has chutzpah. That’s not all it has, but it has more of that than anything else. It may be short on the slyly comic wordplay, the densely textured philosophical inquiry, and the cathartic tragedy that make the play a masterpiece; but its energy and brash commitment to every moment make it a lively and interesting show.

An outgrowth of the Electric Shakespeare Company, which was formed downstate three years ago at the University of Illinois, the Defiant ensemble is directed here by Christopher Johnson, who states his intentions in a program note: “A truly bold choice requires that you open yourself up to the possibility of failure, ridicule and humiliation. . . . And besides, Hamlet is a fun play. We just hope we can achieve the heights that Mel Gibson and Zeffirelli were able to (that was sarcasm in case you were wondering).”

Forget Gibson–James Dean and Sean Penn seem to have inspired Sean Sinitski, whose portrayal of the melancholy Dane veers between off-the-wall jerkiness (in both senses of the word), high-pitched hysteria (one speech seems a direct homage to Dean’s “you’re tearing me apart” scene in Rebel Without a Cause), and moody, self-indulgent silences. There’s Method in this Hamlet’s madness.

Meanwhile, the druggy scene that killed River Phoenix seems to be the model for the setting: a hotel and warehouse dance club in the winter of 1993. It must be winter, because for King Claudius–played as a cocky dope dealer by Christopher Thometz–it’s always snowing; and when he and his thugs aren’t snorting coke they’re smoking pot, popping pills, and shooting automatic pistols. As on any night in the big city, death is sudden and random in this urban Elsinore; it takes barely a second for Hamlet to dispatch pompous aging-hipster Polonius (Charles J. Richards, looking rather like Michael Butler), and even less to take note of the old fool’s passing. In this handgun Hamlet, everyone packs a piece–even Ophelia, first seen sneaking a cigarette while dressed in a schoolgirl’s plaid skirt but clad in black leather by the time she shoves a pistol into Claudius’s mouth. In the climactic carnage even Hamlet’s pal Horatio, usually immune, suffers a palpable hit.

The point, of course, is that Hamlet is a violent play; with its earsplitting gunshots and hyped-up, jittery line readings, this production intends to shake us into the recognition that the story of young people warped by vengeful anger and alienation from a corrupt society is as relevant today as it was to Britons in the warlike 1600s–or to the ancient Scandinavians, whose legend of Amleth was the basis for Shakespeare’s play. “Amleth” means brutish or dim-witted, and the characters in Defiant’s Hamlet are both. No noble heart cracks here; Claudius’s crime, the murder of his brother, usually gets the most attention because it bears “the primal eldest curse,” but in fact everyone is a killer (including Hamlet’s father, who burns in purgatory for his crimes), and Defiant drives the fact home.

The relentless violence doesn’t quite work; if these folks are so quick on the draw, you have to ask yourself, why don’t they just blow each other away in the opening scene instead of three and a half hours later? But it makes for some exciting moments–such as the duel between Hamlet and Laertes (played as a square-jawed preppie by John Neisler), effectively staged by Nick Offerman as a bone-crunching fistfight. Some striking stage pictures (courtesy of set designer Andy Warfel and lighting designer Richard Norwood) and a harshly evocative industrial-crunch sound track by Gregor Mortis are also intriguing.

Though the actors’ deliberately rushed delivery obscures much of the poetry of Shakespeare’s writing, it does convey an urgency and spontaneity that cast the dialogue in a fresh light, at least for listeners who already know the material. (The occasionally incomprehensible speech proves that even speaking “naturally” requires technique; Sinitski, Thometz, and an interesting supporting player named Glen Wowakan Lewis have that technique, while Darren Critz’s lack of it makes his Horatio just plain hard to understand.) And though Shakespeare’s quicksilver jokes fly by unrecognized, effective comedy comes from other sources, including the very entertaining Robert Goliath Taich and Dominic Conti as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern–the Beavis and Butt-head of their day. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern may be dead; Defiant Theatre’s Hamlet most certainly is not.