Meredith Ernst as Ophelia and Gage Wallace as Hamlet
Meredith Ernst as Ophelia and Gage Wallace as Hamlet Credit: Julie E. Ballard

With this reverent evisceration of Shakespeare’s tragedy, Red Theater presents an inventive, perplexing, and wholly engaging exercise in instability. Director Aaron Sawyer’s blocking is asymmetrical, his actors often teeter on the edges of a sunken stage, and his theatrical rule book changes constantly—one minute we’re in an English music hall, the next a Robert Wilson opera. On a superficial level the exquisitely controlled chaos represents Prince Hamlet’s unsettled state of mind: his father’s irate ghost urges him to avenge his murder while Denmark’s populace shrugs at the regicide. More importantly it allows Sawyer’s radical revisions to Shakespeare’s story to spring organically from the aesthetic lawlessness. In this version, written by Sawyer and the cast, Hamlet’s father was a murderous tyrant, so Queen Gertrude feels no qualm in having assisted in his killing. Girlfriend Ophelia is pregnant—most likely by Laertes, her social-climbing brother—and Hamlet banishes her to a nunnery to “take care of it.”

Throughout, Hamlet’s only recourse is to act as emcee of his own story despite a profound disinclination. “My life,” he sighs, “is a play that is mediocre.” Sawyer’s stalwart cast expertly navigate the shifting terrain, managing to stand their ground when they need to hit emotional paydirt. Unexpected delights arise in this 90-minute marvel till the very end, when a beleaguered Fortinbras argues—quite convincingly—that the show was a waste of everyone’s time.