The Oklahoma Shakespearean Festival’s production of Hamlet ESP is an innovative retelling of one of the most recognizable plays of all time. OSF has reopened after two years, and this thought-provoking production speaks to all of our post-pandemic struggles and awarenesses. This particular production shines on several fronts without being overbearing, which is difficult to achieve. William Shakespeare’s character of Hamlet is known for thinking not acting, which may be why he has remained one of the most relatable characters for over 400 years. In this adaptation by Paul Baker, he takes Hamlet’s overthinking and inner conflict one step further by splitting the role of Hamlet into three parts. That’s right! Three different actors are playing the role of Hamlet at the same time onstage together. Fascinating! And completely relatable. Who among us hasn’t had an intrapersonal discussion, pep talk, or argument with ourselves?
While Paul Baker’s adaptation disassembles and rebuilds a story that is familiar to the audience, it is Riley Risso Coker’s elegant direction that elevates that story to art and gifts it to those who are lucky enough to be in attendance. There is a gentleness present that is often missing from productions of Shakespeare’s tragedies. Oftentimes, director’s hammer the audience over the head with the tragic elements of a tragedy leaving the audience leaning back in their seats to get away from the story. Riley Risso Coker has made the rare choice to be gentle and trust the inherent rhythm of this story and her bravery paid off beautifully. This play is offered, and the audience is compelled to lean in and accept it with gratitude.
The acting in this production is amazingly balanced. While all of the actors handle Shakespeare’s heightened language with ease, the Baker adaptation takes that language and serves it up in a way that often feels like spoken work poetry making it contemporary, even deeper, and more relevant. The epitome of ensemble acting shines in Carter Owen and Anna Rose Kelly who create three distinctly different characters each. Natalie Weaver’s portrayal of Polonius is a spot-on depiction of a character that is too often relegated to a two-dimensional cartoon. The challenge of playing the role of Hamlet once that role has been split and given to three different actors is the fear that each actor somehow has less to portray. Nothing could have been further from the truth in this case. All three actors playing Hamlet: Chris Page, Sarah Elizabeth Lehmann, and Ethan Rodrigues-Mullins embodied fully realized nuanced portrayals of a character with depth and aplomb. There were times that the three were completely in sync and times when each was their own individual. Their portrayal was a master class in acting in the moment. Chris Page’s performance stands out as profoundly authentic. There isn’t space to comment on each performance but that is not necessary with such a tight knit well balanced ensemble.
The technical aspects enhance the overall beauty of the of this production. The choice to use period costumes in this adaptation aided in keeping the audience grounded. Jerrilyn Lanier-Duckworth’s costume design was elegant and useful. Having the three Hamlets in all black helped the audience to understand their relationship. The ethereal white costume for Ophelia was mesmerizing. Scenic designer Darrin Wade created a series of platforms that allow the stories action to flow without distraction. Wade’s lighting design was an integral part of the story telling at times subtle and at other times bold. There is a moment where the three Hamlets are on the upstage platform silhouetted with vibrant colored lights behind them as they are chanting “That he’s mad, tis true, tis pity…” and it is visually stunning.
This beautiful and moving production of Hamlet ESP is playing Friday and Saturday in Montgomery Auditorium on the campus of Southeastern Oklahoma State University. Coming out of two years of pandemic isolation and stress this production is the reminder that we all need that together we can create stories that will lift our souls.