The Betsy Stage is a creative, relatively new company dedicated to adapting "Elizabethan theater for a new audience." That goal inspired the company's name, and also calls for giving Shakespeare unexpected twists -- Betsy's Lear, for example, was set in the American West and had the old king dividing his land among his three favorite prostitutes -- and messing around a lot with the text. Betsy has had its way with Macbeth, too, and now it's Hamlet's turn.
This version is set in the Balkans, with the action performed by a band of gypsies; Gertrude and Claudius are the gypsy king and queen. While the bright, well-designed program gives a lot of excellent information on gypsy -- or Roma -- history, the characters aren't real gypsies, and the milieu isn't anywhere real on earth. It's a romantic, fictive, symbolic world, vaguely early-twentieth-century Parisienne and lit by colored bulbs, where Erik Satie provides accompaniment and Edith Piaf sings. For much of the time, the plot follows the trajectory of Shakespeare's play, though there are changes. Hamlet, for instance, is a woman, while Ophelia is a man, Ophelio. Scholars have argued for centuries about whether Queen Gertrude knew that Claudius had murdered her first husband; this Gertrude is entirely innocent. Horatio is Hamlet's adopted brother. Familiar lines pop up in unfamiliar contexts, and it's the gypsies' dancing bear that pronounces "Something is rotten."This ambitious, vital production has both strengths and weaknesses. Among its strengths: The performance is free. In fact, all Betsy performances are, if you make reservations. According to indispensable arts journalist John Moore, the actors even get paid a respectable amount; Betsy has an arts-loving benefactor who makes that possible. And visually, the show is an ever-changing, stimulating feast: It's entertaining simply to contemplate the way the actors are arranged on the stage and to take in their multi-colored costumes. The music is marvelous, all of it evocative and much of it provided by on-stage musicians, including an organist whose contribution is vital -- haunting or hurdy-gurdy, tender or threatening as required.
On the downside, there's some badly over-the-top acting, particularly when things get emotional. The main problem, though, is with language. If you're up on Shakespeare, you find yourself getting dizzy as characters insert lines from other plays or break up famous monologues or swap lines -- so that Hamlet, for instance, tells her mother, rather than Ophelio, to get to a nunnery. I have no idea why Queen Gertrude would steal a line about two young girls from A Midsummer Night's Dream -- "two lovely berries molded on one stem" -- and apply it to herself and her first husband. Really? The king was a berry? It's intriguing when the gypsies transform into the exiled king and his court from As You Like It, but mildly annoying when Horatio, who's become the melancholy Jaques, tosses words from three separate plays into one monologue. If you don't know Shakespeare well, it's hard to follow the action. And some of the made-up stuff is just laughable, as when Hamlet, holding Yorick's skull, alludes to Shakespeare's "Here hung those lips that I have kissed I know not how oft" with "When we die, we disappear like the lips of this face." Whatever the Betsy Stage is trying to say here, Shakespeare said it better.
Does this Hamlet shed any new light on the original Hamlet? No. Does it make that oft-performed and murky work more relevant and contemporary? I don't think so. Judging from overheard comments, others found the revision clever but weren't sure what to make of it either.
The Betsy Stage does create a warm, welcoming atmosphere, and you leave the theater feeling that you've experienced something. Maybe something that could even be significant -- if you could just figure out the point.