Theater Review: Hamlet, Prince of Cuba

By Megan McDonald March 26, 2012

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Emilio Delgado, Frankie J . Alvarez and Mercedes  Herrero in Asolo Rep's Hamlet, Prince of Cuba.

The works of Shakespeare perhaps more than any other playwright are open to vastly differing artistic interpretations, and that’s held true especially in productions of Hamlet. Settings, costumes and staging have varied much over the centuries, at the least offering audiences a visual charge; at most, sometimes bringing new insights into the classic work.

The Asolo Rep’s current production, under the direction of Michael Donald Edwards, chooses to set the play’s action in Cuba, in a time period that feels fluid but is mostly tied to the late 1890s--an era summoned by a tall wall of evocative Havana architecture (by Dane Laffrey) and by the costumes (by Clint Ramos), which contrive to be lavish yet somber. This not a Havana of lush tropical colors; the palette is predominantly black, gray and white, and when a brighter color appears it has a significance to a character or a moment. The production’s musical background is likewise Latin: celebratory perhaps for a wedding, more plaintive when Hamlet (Frankie J. Avarez, handsome and physically nimble) is pondering his crucial dilemma.

The revenge play was a staple of Shakespeare’s time, but in most cases the reaction to a crime or wrong was not so long debated as it is by young prince Hamlet, who soliloquizes about everything rather than, as his counterpart Laertes (Andhy Mendez) does when faced with a similar death-of-a-father situation, leaping into action. (Of course, hasty response clearly has its own problems.) In this version of the play (adapted by Edwards, with a Spanish translation by Nilo Cruz that will be presented at some performances), there are some fairly hefty cuts to the original, meaning those soliloquies come thick and fast. Purists may feel they’re seeing a Cliff’s Notes version of the piece, but the shorter scenes and faster pace of this production do lend Hamlet, Prince of Cuba, something of a cinematic air.

What may cause some Shakespeare lovers greater pause is the overall tone of this Hamlet. There is certainly plenty of morbid and perhaps mordant humor in the original, especially revolving around young Hamlet’s assumed madness; Edwards gives that aspect of the play free rein, having Alvarez caper and wink to the audience a la Groucho Marx at times, donning a red clown nose at others. It’s cleverly played and staged in a lively fashion, but those used to a more traditional, graver Hamlet may end up feeling that rather than being a tragedy in five acts, this version is a comedy in two.

That’s not to say there aren’t moments of genuine emotion that come through, especially when Ophelia (Gisela Chipe) loses her mind following the death of Polonius (played with natural comic flair by Douglas Jones), or when Hamlet confronts his mother, Gertrude (Mercedes Herrero, properly stately and haunted), about her marriage to his uncle, Claudius (Emilio Delgado, who certainly looks the part of a devious grandee).

But in general this Hamlet is more about being bold and even audacious (a surprise appearance by a familiar personage at the very end of the play is an example) than about plumbing the depths of the characters’ troubled souls. Hamlet, Prince of Cuba is frequently exciting to watch and listen to, and maybe that’s enough. Just don’t expect astounding revelations related to the long history of Cuba or Hamlet himself.

Hamlet, Prince of Cuba continues in rotating rep through May 6; call 351-8000 or go to

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