Placing emphasis on serving the hard of hearing and performed by a gender-bent, inclusive cast, Why Not Theatre’s production of “Prince Hamlet” — currently being presented by the Peak Performances series at Montclair State University — speaks volumes on embracing the beauty of American Sign Language.
Adapter/director Ravi Jain accomplishes this by reworking William Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” in a way that is visually involved and stunning — not in set design or props, but in its commitment to putting ASL at the forefront of the performance, communicated as both art and language.
The two-hour, 15-minute show, which opened Sept. 22 and runs through Sept. 25 at Montclair State’s Alexander Kasser Theater, follows the original play’s plot. Hamlet, the Prince of Denmark (played by Eli Pauley), is visited by the ghost of his late father, who tells him to avenge his death by killing the murderer. The killer happens to be Hamlet’s uncle, the new king and husband to Hamlet’s mother; the prince shows clear disapproval of the marriage from start to end.
Hamlet pretends he has lost his wits, though with the original play’s ambiguity and Pauley’s believable acting, the audience may question at what point he stops feigning madness and actually goes mad. Most of the storyline is devoted to characters reacting to Hamlet’s new behavior as Hamlet seeks the perfect time and method to kill his uncle, leading to a disastrous end — one that those who know the play might assume would be difficult to showcase in a way that is appealing to those that can’t hear, but is executed well.
The stage was adorned with the same simple props throughout the show: piles of dirt, three large, rectangular mirrors facing the audience, and chairs lining the side. Even with occasional use of such props, the cast’s success in evoking emotion and maintaining the flow of the performance was mainly derived from their raw acting ability — more specifically, their ability to feed off one another and truly make it seem as if these were real people interacting, and the audience was just sitting in on the action.
From certain cast members’ ease in playing multiple roles to their effortlessness in conveying a range of emotions like madness and grief (three of the actors had visible tears falling from their faces), their command of the stage did not go unnoticed.
ASL was used to translate all the dialogue, sometimes even serving as the only form of language. All the actors had moments of accompanying lines with ASL translations to add dramatic effect to their words, but the standout of the cast was Dawn Jani Birley.
Birley, who is said in the program to be born to a “third-generation Deaf family and identifies herself as culturally and linguistically Deaf,” played Horatio, Hamlet’s closest friend. More than that, she served as the interpreter for each character throughout the play.
Birley remained in a spotlight and was often at the center of the stage, again showing ASL as central to this reimagined work. As multiple characters bounced dialogue back and forth, she rapidly translated for each person. By doing this, she essentially played all the characters, and the emotion she took on as she translated their lines was truly something to behold. It took over her entire body and countenance, turning ASL into highly deliberate, expressive movements and facials that helped move along the story and the audience’s perception of what was happening.
That, in combination with the music (which frequently resembled a thumping heartbeat), created a chilling experience for the audience, with tension building in many scenes.
The various elements and moving parts of “Prince Hamlet” worked extremely well together to establish a rhythm viewers could find themselves immersed in, while remaining conscious of the production’s inclusivity, demonstrated by the diversity of cast members in terms of race and gender.
This, and the production’s ability to turn ASL into an experience, strongly reflected a famous “Hamlet” line uttered by Polonius, a counselor of the king (played here by Barbara Gordon): “To thine own self be true.”
Remaining performances of “Prince Hamlet” are scheduled for Sept. 23 at 7:30 p.m., Sept. 24 at 8 p.m. and Sept. 25 at 3 p.m. at the Kasser Theater at Montclair State University. Visit peakperfs.org.
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