Sometimes in the theatre it’s instructive to cast aside all the experimentation and whimsical reinterpreting and post-modern gobbledygook and return, bravely, to the source of the art — to the root material of a play, its character and its themes. Keeping it simple can sometimes mean keeping it true.
In the case of Hamlet, one of Shakespeare’s most dramaturgically flagellated plays, returning to the source means geography: however tortured, infuriated, Oedipally self-doubting and melancholy the boy may be, the boy is eternally a tortured, infuriated, Oedipally self-doubting and melancholy Dane. If you’re Lynnea Benson, artistic director of the 19-year-old Frog and Peach Theatre Company, returning to the source of the play means returning to a personal narrative, for she is of Swedish extraction and hails from Ballard, Washington, a fishing and logging town well-stocked with ethnic kith and kin. Benson knows the “Scandinavian temperament” — and make no mistake, she says, there is one.
By emphasizing the geographic source of Hamlet — which runs until Nov. 10 at the West End Theater (263 W. 86th St., 212-868-4444) — Benson says that she wants to heighten the play’s inherent suspense and, if only a little, frighten the bejesus out of people. Trading liberally on terms usually reserved for potboilers — “paranoid,” “detective thriller” — her idea is to turn literal darkness, which Scandinavians indisputably know something about, into a terrifying illumination of one society’s character.
How to explain the “Scandinavian temperament”? Culling from Frog and Peach’s publicity materials, Benson gives a clue:
Shakespeare, she says, may have been playing to the prejudices of his audience, who had reason to view the Danes as dangerously barbaric. The Elizabethan Englishman, she explains, was terrified because the Norse didn’t fight with English logic. The English fought army-to-army and their game was to take hostages for ransom, or property to barter for political gain. The Norsemen didn’t take hostages, they just killed everybody. “You know what loving cups have handles on both sides?,” she asks. “It’s from the Viking tradition of drinking from the skull of your enemy.”
To be sure, Benson still tinkers with tradition. Women play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, injecting lust and sex into what is usually — and merely — comic relief. She had set designer Andy Estep dream of a metaphorical terror chamber heavy with whispered secrets and lingering lies. She had costume designer Lindsey Vandervier create both Victorian and “primitive” garb, as if pitting those English once more against those unforgiving Norse.
And now, 5 questions Lynnea Benson has never been asked:
1) What’s the most perceptive question anyone has ever asked you about your work?
A very kind actor, a colleague from the Actors Studio, once asked me why I’ve recently preferred the director’s chair at Frog and Peach over performing on our stage. I told him that this way I get to play all the parts.
2) What’s the most idiotic question anyone has ever asked you about your work?
“Why does Frog and Peach put so much comedy in the tragedies and so much tragedy in the comedies?” My reply? “Those moments are Shakespeare’s idea, not mine.” There’s tremendous pathos in the comedies and much hilarity in the tragedies and you don’t need to be a genius to find it.
3) What’s the weirdest question anyone has ever asked you about your work?
This from an irate professor: “What’s wrong with you people? Shakespeare never wrote so…so sexy!” Well, I’m afraid he did. This stuff is quite R-rated at times — something the modern editors aren’t always comfortable with. (Speaking of sexy, with regard to our Hamlet, I promise you’ll forget Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were ever portrayed as men.
4) As you’re of Scandinavian ancestry, you have a specific understanding of Hamlet-you know “the Scandinavian temperament.” Can you describe it in some detail? How does Shakespeare get that temperament right and in which ways does he get it wrong?
Many in my Dad’s generation from Sweden and Norway were repressed. Showing emotion — affection, rage, sorrow — was considered to be very vulgar, and there were many off-limits subjects at the dinner table. Even when life was at its worst, these folks tend to keep their problems to themselves. Drink was (and I reckon, still is) a way to manage the accompanying stress, but drink also loosens the censors, and when you pour vodka on top of all those feelings — kids, go play outside. And if the minister drops by, tell him everything’s fine, that we’re a Happy Normal Family.
5) We hardly lack for Shakespeare productions, Hamlet in particular. When thinking of your Hamlet, how much must you willfully forget other productions of the play that you’ve seen? Actually, whenever you’re working on any Shakespeare, do you ever ask yourself the Passover question: “Why is this production different from all the others?”
Ah, good question! I do tend to sequester myself from performances of titles on our seasonal short list. Laurence Olivier was a great man, but I’ve never forgiven him for burnishing certain things in the popular consciousness about Hamlet that the First Folio just doesn’t support.
For example, Polonius is far from foolish, and Ophelia is not just a “nice girl.” She’s quite ballsy and resourceful, and never was a nervous breakdown so beautifully, convincingly set down, classic or modern, as the one that Shakespeare gives to Ophelia. Frog and Peach is the only group I know that’s faithful to the First Folio, an adherence which, together with our terrific performers and Method approach, provides audiences with a nonstop thrill ride in every production we do — but an unconventional result for many.
6) Hamlet is a real person. He wants to talk to you about the world of the play he’s living in, courtesy of your production. You want to help him by answering his questions. What does he ask you? How do you answer him?
Maybe not ask so much as agree with him — we are all afraid of what’s on the Other Side. That’s one thing we all have in common. It’s a wonderful discovery — something that helps us live with kindness and empathy.