To say that the stars of the latest production of “Hamlet” are dummies is not offensive.
The show, staged by the Czechoslovak-American Marionette Theatre, which does feature a handful of real, live actors, has a cast mostly comprised of carved, wooden marionettes with their costumes painted right on. Or, in the case of Queen Gertrude, almost all the way on.
Upon entering Jane’s Carousel in DUMBO, the refurbished horse-and-carriage amusement ride that Jane Walentas is housing in a storefront, it was apparent that this was assumed to be an all-ages production. Kids lined the seats and a group of teens huddled together in the corner, but from the opening act, where the Claudius puppet furiously grinds against the Gertrude in her low-cut gown, it’s clear that the production has more blue humor than “Blue’s Clues.”
Some people can only take their Shakespeare straight. No modern adaptations (we’re looking at you, Ethan Hawke) or quirky twists are appreciated. While I am not one of those people, it was with a bit of hesitation that I took my seat in the freezing room and prepared for an abridged, musical, puppet-populated version of “Hamlet.”
While the show was fun to watch — the carousel spins and lights up for some scenes, and the slapstick puppetry won me over right off the bat — at times it was a case of too much spectacle and too little story. Anyone who wasn’t familiar with the prince of Denmark and his woes might have been lost from the get-go, as the oversized characters’ shadows blocked out key parts of the plotline.
At times however, directors Vit Horejs and Pavel Dobrusky struck gold with their offbeat choices. The actors to whom Hamlet delivers his “Speak the Speech” tirade are shown as shadows on a sheet, and the gravedigger — who finds the skull of Yorick, but tosses it aside — does his dirty work on a green felt cemetery brought on stage just for the occasion; the limitations of the stage and the directors’ broad thinking made for a sweet and effective moment.
The most impressive work here comes from the living, breathing cast. Each player took on a number of roles, and even occasionally switched characters, and worked wonders with his puppet. The wooden blocks came to life when they dragged their feet, danced or struggled to scale a wall; there is no doubt that their maneuvering was skillful.
Indeed, when Nat Cassidy’s Hamlet pressed a flesh-colored recorder betwixt his thighs and his puppet suggested to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern that they play it, I could almost see a grimace creep across the puppet’s immobile face.
Like the players at Elsinore themselves, the Czechoslovak-American Marionette Theatre might work best as a traveling show, performing its zestful “Hamlet” in a room where crowds are free to wander. Being seated for the hour-plus show, though, left me feeling like it was too little time for the group to tell Hamlet’s tale completely and too much for me to fully enjoy the performance.