By Toby Zinman
For the Inquirer
Blanka Zizka has directed a much-anticipated Hamlet at the Wilma Theater, and central to the advance buzz is having Zainab Jah, a petite black African woman, in the title role. So was the idea that Hamlet is essentially human, and thus post-race and post-gender? Maybe. But if you want to do a High Concept production, you have to actually have a concept and not just a bunch of weird stylistic choices.
As it is, the stylistic choices—sometimes puzzling, sometimes dazzling—dominate the drama and often overwhelm the poetry, especially since some of the cast speaks very slowly, pausing at the end of lines, making little attempt at creating human speech. In a set designed by Matt Saunders, dirt falls inexplicably from the ceiling/sky. Smoke puffs out from walls which are covered with graffiti and war images (Street Artist CERA). The bizarre costumes (Vasilija Zivanic) locate each character in a different era, and the super-spooky music (composed by Alex Games and Emma Violet) is more distracting than atmospheric.
Jah delivers the Shakespearean lines with strength and clarity, but without much range of emotion other than a kind of muffled rage. We rarely see the intellectual trapped by his own moral debates, his self-disgust and his paralysis of will, as he tries to avenge his father's murder by his lascivious uncle (Steven Rishard) now king and new husband to his mother, Gertrude (Krista Apple-Hodge who dotes on him beautifully).
Perhaps the oddest performance is Sarah Gliko's as Ophelia; she spins slowly in a circle as she is held at arm's length, first by her father Polonius (Joe Guzman) and then by her brother Laertes (Brian Ratcliffe) and she intones her lines ("how the wheel becomes it" indeed). It isn't possible to be moved by her death when the whole scene is so attenuated and so peculiar. Ed Swidey as the first player in the troupe of travelling actors turns in a notably natural-sounding performance, as does Ross Beschler as Horatio.
Making the wittiest entrance, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (Keith Conallen and Jered McLenigan) tumble onto the stage, anticipating their entrance in Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, the Wilma's next production, which will use the same cast except that Jah will not return as Hamlet.