By James Bartholomew
“Trifling, obsolete, and flat” is how famed English poet John Dryden described “Hamlet” back in 1664. About three hundred years later, The New York Times called “Hamletmachine,” Heiner Müller’s 1977 reworking of the play, “unstageable” and “bizarre.” Suffice it to say, if you’re putting up a new show about Denmark’s favorite prince, the odds are against you winning over the critics right out of the gate. And while it remains to be seen whether it will stand the test of time like its prestigious predecessors, “Hamlet Machine,” a new adaptation of Müller and Shakespeare, is a bold and exciting work that’s far from trifling but is wonderfully bizarre.
Adapted by Ani Vardanyan and performed by Narek Baghdasaryan, “Hamlet Machine” finds the pensive prince struggling to understand and overcome his murderous past and the motivations that led him to his ruinous fate. Taking a page from Müller’s metafictional playbook, the Hamlet, Ophelia, Gertrude, and Claudius of “Hamlet Machine” each explore their existence and relationships both to each other and to the play itself.
Unlike in Müller or Shakespeare, these characters all occupy the same body, bursting through the actor whenever they see fit. It’s a strange concept, to be sure, but it’s executed beautifully by Mr. Baghdasaryan, who performs the piece with spellbound intensity and power. Each of the four personas is sufficiently unique and immediately recognizable. Quick transitions into and out of Shakespeare’s classic characters punctuate “Hamlet Machine,” but Mr. Baghdasaryan sticks the landing every time with grace and conviction.
Imaginative and effective costume design by Hayarpi Khachatryan highlights the scenery and facilitates the character changes that sell the work. Mr. Baghdasaryan, dressed in a white jumpsuit / straightjacket (alluding to the deteriorating psyche of our protagonist), dons several different costumes that hang around the stage. The wire‑frame bustiers and prostheses Mr. Baghdasaryan wears help identify his characters and reinforce the play’s emphasis on the mechanical.
But those costumes aren’t just made to look pretty; they’re designed to move with an actor who whirls around the stage in a furious frenzy. “Hamlet Machine,” though moody and meditative, is a piece of tremendous movement that asks Mr. Baghdasaryan to engage in all sorts of acrobatics and athletics. The characters of “Hamlet Machine” dance, climb, crawl and fight in and around a simple wooden table used both as prop and scene partner. All those feats of strength energize a play that might otherwise feel languid in its contemplative pacing.
“Hamlet Machine” is a vibrant and cerebral forty‑five minutes, but it is best recommended to someone already steeped in the prerequisite readings from Shakespeare and Müller. For one, the play is staged almost entirely in its actor’s native Armenian. Rest assured, Mr. Baghdasaryan proves more than capable of transcending linguistic boundaries with his evocative and inspired performance, but it’s easy to get lost if you aren’t familiar with the source material. Regardless of language, “Hamlet Machine” is an odd delight that brings a new, distinctly modern depth to the famed Danish royal. Long live the prince.
Performed by Narek Baghdasaryan
Oct. 24 at 7:30pm
Director: Arthur Makaryan
Dramaturg: Ani Vardanyan
Co-Producer: Yijin Liu
Costume Design: Hayarpi Khachatryan
Choreographer: Ani Abrahamyan
Show Image by Hayarpi Khachatryan, courtesy of the production
United Solo 2018
410 West 42nd Street
New York City
JAMES BARTHOLOMEW is a writer and musician living in New York City. He is an administrator of the Fordham University Theatre Program and an avid lover of the arts.