Every year, directors across the country find innovative ways to update the world of Shakespeare. Some productions succeed with grace, while others evoke distaste among audiences. Fortunately, REV Theatre Company’s HAMLET—performed on the most exclusive burial grounds in Philadelphia, Laurel Hill Cemetery—avoids the entrapments of an overly modern turned cheesy spin on HAMLET.
The secret, of course, lies in the details. Incorporating the obelisks and the graves at large into the stage of the show emphasize the immediacy of death for these characters and the audience.
This REV production uses subtle humor, a distinct departure from the riotous productions of their Graveyard Cabaret series. Some of the best gems center around Bob Weick, who captivates the audience as Ghost, Player King, and Gravedigger, wearing an “I Am Your Father” T-shirt in his opening appearance as the Player King and singing the BeeGees’ “Stayin’ Alive” as he digs Ophelia’s grave.
One of the most striking aspects of this production centers on the way clothing intertwines with character. In a departure from the extravagance of the Elizabethan garb or the dark monochromatic color scheme of many current HAMLETrenditions, REV’s production utilizes modern and colorful clothing with the occasional touch of Elizabethan affluence.
The styling creates a thought-provoking collision between the classical and contemporary. For example, Mark Knight as Polonius wears a modern grey suit and vest, but also a ruffled Elizabethan collar—playing up the odd, contradictory nature of Ophelia’s father.
Each character in this rendition tells as compelling a story with their costumes as with their soliloquies. Nowhere does this support for Shakespeare’s text become more apparent than in the styling of Hamlet and Horatio. Their costumes contrast each other to reveal their states of mind—creating captivating examples of their character arcs.
In Hamlet’s case, his appearance addresses the age-old question surrounding his madness: just how much of his insanity does Hamlet feign in the play? According to the costuming by Rudy Caporaso—the REV co-artistic director who plays the title role and styled the entire production—very little.
When the audience first encounters him, Hamlet enters dressed in a tailored, all black suit with black and gold dress shoes. Despite his mourning, he’s still immaculately put together—a visual clue that doesn’t reoccur until the final act of the play.
As his mental state becomes more erratic, Hamlet’s attire also deteriorates. In one stunning moment, he rejects the affections of the blanched-dressed Ophelia, portrayed by University of the Arts alum Abigail Garber, with shocking violence. The choice of Hamlet’s sleeveless, white tank top becomes viscerally fitting as he pins Ophelia to the ground and screams at her to join a nunnery—particularly given the cultural history of the iconic shirt as a wife-beater.
In the pits of his insanity, the dignified style of the black mourning suit disappears. The absence of even the smallest marker of taste in his attire seems to signify that no deceit exists in Hamlet’s expressions of madness.
Just as the audience watches Hamlet disintegrate through his clothing, we also watch how he regains not only his sanity, but honor, in the same fashion. When Hamlet reappears in the final act, he dons his most modern outfit: blue jeans, a skull T-shirt, a black and grey bomber-esque jacket, and the return of the black and gold dress shoes. This slick dress seems to signify the return of Hamlet’s reason. He mourns openly for Ophelia and agrees to Laertes’ challenge as repentance, despite the odds.
Alternatively, as the only constant in Hamlet’s distress, an emotive Horatio, portrayed by Tyler Houchins, maintains the same dress—a matching deep purple vest, pants, and grey crew neck—throughout the play. The only exception comes during the intimate embrace as Horatio begs Hamlet to withdraw from the duel. Hamlet, in his attempt to console his friend’s fears, gives his jacket to Horatio, who wears it over his own vest. This moment highlights the intimate relationship that these two men maintain throughout the production and encapsulate the pledge that Horatio later makes to tell the prince’s story.
In my interview with Caporaso after the show, he explained that he wanted the visuals to avoid any comparisons to more traditional reenactment-based styling, especially given the backdrop of the cemetery.
Caporaso revealed that he drew inspiration from contemporary opulence and “trolling” the late Alexander McQueen, Britain’s famous fashion designer. While the REV’s production doesn’t turn the cemetery into an extended episode of Project Runway, Caporaso and director Rosey Hay expertly integrate the best references in modern fashion to accentuate this Shakespearean classic.
The REV’s HAMLETisn’t the spooky interpretation one might expect when sitting among gravestones that date back centuries. Rather, this rendition provides a profoundly intimate and nuanced modern interpretation. While departing from the company of the dead, this production might even leave you with the urge to reassess the relationship between style and emotion in your own life.
[Laurel Hill Cemetery, 3822 Ridge Avenue] July 7-15, 2017. thelaurelhillcemetery.org
[Emlen Physick Estate, 1048 Washington Street, Cape May, NJ] July 19-29, 2017;capemaymac.org.