It may not be necessary, but it probably helps to have at least a basic awareness of William Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” to appreciate the off-beat, curiously effective and aptly named adaptation “Hamlet, Prince of Grief” at the Ringling International Arts Festival.
“Hamlet” is one of Shakespeare’s longest plays, but it is the shortest presentation at this year’s RIAF, running a thankfully brief 30 minutes.
This production of Iran’s Leev Theater Group is not so much an adaptation as a distillation of the story, warped and retold by writer Mohammad Charmshir, working with director Mohammad Aghebati.
The piece, performed by Iranian actor Afshin Hashemi, takes elements of the original and fashions a new story, inspired by the characters that have become so familiar through theatrical history.
Without awareness of “Hamlet,” you might watch an intriguingly bizarre piece of storytelling. The more you know about “Hamlet,” you will recognize specific aspects that become relevant as the story progresses, though they don’t necessarily add much to an emotional and intellectual connection.
As the audience enters, Hashemi is already on stage, seated in semi-darkness at a long wood table with a suitcase on the floor beside him.
As the lights come up, he starts to tell a tale of woe, of planning a weekend trip for camping and fishing with his friends, only to discover that his father has died. The voice of his father lets him know that it was murder, and he implicates the young man’s mother (Gertrude) and uncle (Claudius).
Hashemi, speaking in Farsi with English subtitles flashed on a wall behind him, shares all of this while sitting in a chair. He opens the suitcase and removes a variety of items, including plastic animals. In this telling, Gertrude is portrayed by a toy elephant, while his father is a tiger.
“To Be or Not to Be” is a question he sees on a billboard, worthy of this philosophy student’s consideration.
There’s a skateboard for transportation and a bottle of water, which is used for drinking, dumped over his head (I’m not sure why) and rain splashing across the car windshield.
In effect, this production presents a mentally broken Hamlet, so stricken by his grief that he has reverted to childish games, play-acting with his toys, providing chirping noises for birds or the whooshing sound of trees as the car passes.
Even when the story is at its most puzzling, Hashemi keeps you interested. The piece has an interesting perspective that well suits its brief running time. Anything longer and the charms would begin to wane.