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  • Writer's pictureAnthony Chase

Hamlet at Brazen-Faced Varlets

Review by Anthony Chase

A woman holding a human skull
Stefanie Warnick as Hamlet

No play in the English language looms with the gravitas and grandeur of that Mount Everest of tragedies, Williams Shakespeare’s Hamlet.  The mere act of producing Hamlet or of playing Hamlet is, by default an act of most egregious hubris, certainly destined to cause the disgraceful fall of all involved. 


How delightful then, to see little Brazen-Faced Varlets pull it off with such aplomb. 


Director Lara D. Haberberger is clearly not intimidated by the material.  Seemingly taking the attitude that storytelling is storytelling and bolstered by the knowledge that Hamlet provides one helluva good story, she renders the text with simplicity.


Her all-female cast possesses a wide and uneven range of experience, talent, and even appropriateness for the roles they play. Who cares? They set out with a firm sense of resolve to tell us the story of how Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, responded when the ghost of his father charged him to avenge his murder. 


Stefanie Warnick, the newly named artistic director of Brazen-Faced Varlets plays Hamlet.  She brings a perfect sense of languid gloom and world weariness to the brooding prince.  She is notably confident in her recitation of the words, and successful in presenting the character’s complexity through antic mania and distracted melancholia. 


While so much depends on this central performance, I observed that the star of this three-hour and fifteen-minute evening, which breezily and entertainingly relates its stirring tale, is the direction.  Director Haberberger is the ringmaster of a circus of tragedy in which the clowns play a vital role.  She has cast three dancers, “three fates,” who serve as a chorus, as a choreographic transition between scenes, and as miscellaneous supernumeraries. These are the graceful and expressive Madeline Allard-Dugan, Jessie Miller, and Sandra Roberts, who glide through space, sometimes as furies accompanying the murdered king’s ghost, or as dancers at court, or as clowning players.  It’s a clever device that clears the way for the production to define the distinct episodes of Shakespeare’s tragedy, while making room for Warnick to deliver the great soliloquies. 


"O, that this too too solid flesh would melt"; "To be, or not to be"; “O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I!"; "Now might I do it pat, now he is praying"; "How all occasions do inform against me." Indeed, the soliloquies arrive with a sense of occasion, but in a simple and expressive way, without pomposity. These speeches are so familiar that much of the audience could recite them along with Warnick, but in this production, their context is presented with admirable clarity and simplicity, amplifying their impact.


Among the other cast members, Lanie Shannon gives a particularly strong performance as ruthless yet guilt-ridden Claudius.  Alyssa Walsh is also excellent as Queen Gertrude. 


Jennifer Fitzery is sublime as smug and befuddled Polonius, her diminutive stature amplifies the comic underpinning of this most tragic character, an entirely unreliable and duplicitous person who, nonetheless, dispenses the play’s most famously sage advice. 


Rachael Buchanan makes a dashing and eloquent Laertes, rash and hot-headed but ultimately ethical.


Leyla Gentil went on as Horatio, having replaced another actor a mere week before opening. Amazingly, she and mostly off book.  Despite the brevity of her preparation, she nonetheless, gave some of the best line interpretations of the evening.  Her Horatio, rendered with perfect pace and diction, is a joy. 


In comic secondary roles, the remarkable Caitlin Baeumler Coleman enters the stage as the Player Queen as if to say, “This children, is how it’s done.”  She is a comic star and her formidable talents, augmented by one amazing wig, are showcased very successfully here. 


Sarah Emmerling and Kennedy Lee acquit themselves impressively with their renderings of poor doomed Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, roles that, since Tom Stoppard, will always renovate with disproportionate humor. 


Heather Fangsrud, a talented mainstay of the Brazen-Faced company, provides two delightful comic turns, one as effeminate Osric, the other as the quick-witted Gravedigger. 


Ophelia is always a challenge when staging Hamlet. Directors seem to find Shakespeare’s silence about this character to be a frustration.  She is tragic collateral damage in a war of royal machinations.  Her father and her brother speak to her with entirely inappropriate language. Her father uses her to maneuver royal advantage. 


Maryna Sophia renders the role with clarity and with tragic affect. She plays the role rather large, an impulse reinforced by Haberberger’s direction.  Haberberger shows us, for instance, the offstage scene in which lord Hamlet visits Ophelia in her closet with his doublet all unbraced, acted out as pantomime. Sophia’s mad scene is also unusually animated.  I think, by contrast, that we can trust Shakespeare to have known what he was doing.  On the one hand, Hamlet does flirts with Ophelia, notably in public, but on the other hand, he never mentions her once in his soliloquies.  Indeed, the text veers in another direction, convincingly delivered by Shannon as King Claudius: “Love? His affections do not that way tend; Nor what he spake, though it lacked form a little, Was not like madness.”  Ophelia is merely being used, and is entirely dispensed with before the final scene.


Jennifer Arroyo walks the stage as the Ghost of the former king most regally.  Caroline Parzy-Sanders and Danette Pawlowski are highly amusing as multiple characters. 


Recognizing that the production situation is extremely modest, and that there are moments that could have been trimmed, and a tendency to race through language that needed to be savored, this is a highly satisfying, credible, and enjoyable Hamlet.  The time actually flies by as we delight in the ample pleasures of this production.





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