Review: You'll Want to See What Happens Next in "Hamlet: La Telenovela"

Hamlet: La Telenovela

Translation/literary adaptation by José María Ruano de la Haza

Directed by Federico Mallet

Presented by FRIGID New York, Something from Abroad, and Quemoción at the Kraine Theater

85 E 4th St., Manhattan, NYC and via livestreaming

July 21-30, 2023

Martha Preve, Silvana Gonzalez, Andy Price, Federico Mallet, Shlomit Oren, Castor Pepper, Gabriel Rosario, and Pelayo Alvarez. Courtesy of Emily Owens PR
This July is shaping up well for fans of Hamlet (or the merely Dane-curious), with Hamlet Speak, a shortened cut of the play that includes contemporary monologues for Hamlet and Ophelia, playing this week at the Chain Theatre; director Kenny Leon's music-infused version, which positions itself in conversation with his 2019 production of Much Ado About Nothing, continuing its run in Central Park; and, our subject here, Hamlet: La Telenovela, which brings to the Kraine Theater a fast-moving, tremendously funny adaptation that ranks among our favorite experiences of Shakespeare's celebrated tragedy. Hamlet: La Telenovela, presented in Spanish with English supertitles, reimagines its original through the conventions of the titular televisual genre, with a healthy dose of parody towards both sources of inspiration. The fit is a good one: as Hamlet: La Telenovela highlights, Hamlet already shares the telenovela's predilections for love triangles, infatuations across lines of rank, explosive family secrets, and, of course, tragic deaths. The marriage of Hamlet and the telenovela tradition, in other words, works far better than any marriage in the play.
Shlomit Oren, Castor Pepper, and Gabriel Rosario. Courtesy of Emily Owens PR
The plot, in brief: Hamlet's (Federico Mallet, who also directs) uncle, Claudio (Andy Price) has murdered Hamlet's father and appropriated both that latter man's crown and his wife, Gertrudis (Silvana Gonzalez). While the royal couple adorns the cover of ¡Hola! magazine, Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, is none too pleased with these developments, and, with additional motivation from his father's ghost (Pelayo Álvarez, hilarious as various minor characters), contemplates revenge. His unusual behavior, meanwhile, spurs spying and intrigues that play out to the detriment–as the ending of this adaptation humorously emphasizes through Horacio's (Martha Preve Ayora) mandate to tell Hamlet's story–not only of Hamlet's family but also of Apolonia (Cástor G. Sánchez-Pepper) and her daughter, Ofelia (Shlomit Oren), and son, Laertes (Gabriel Rosario). Rather than beginning with Old Hamlet's ghost, Hamlet: La Telenovela begins with a sort of combination funeral and wedding party scene that sets up the important plot dynamics for the audience, as well as establishing the atmosphere of surveillance as Hamlet listens in while dancing on Laertes's conversation with Claudio. The production runs about two hours, and the streamlining eliminates the Fortinbras political subplot, as is not uncommon, and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern also fail to make the cut, although Hamlet does allude to them in a remark about a pair of untrustworthy friends. The language is contemporary, with occasional jokes about ornate Shakespearean metaphor and such, but, parings down and updatings notwithstanding, the adaptation hits on all of the significant beats and themes of its early modern predecessor, and does so more enjoyably than many straight productions.
Shlomit Oren. Courtesy of Emily Owens PR

Hamlet: La Telenovela presents itself as a television broadcast, complete with commercials–cleverly, the only time that Shakespeare's text is directly quoted–and fourth wall breaking moments. Spilling at times beyond the stage itself, the vibrant color and evocative set design make the audience forget that it's in a black box theater. The music and lighting throughout are suitably (melo)dramatic, and the show gives some non-Shakespearian songs not only to Ofelia (whose madness comes across as a result as angrier and more empowered) but also to Hamlet's spectral father. The costuming includes some partly buttoned shirts (Laertes and Hamlet share both a love of Ofelia and a narcissistic love of themselves) and some rather glamorous dresses that speak to the wealth and status of most of these characters (as does the way in which Gertrudis copes with events). As the gravedigger (Pelayo Álvarez) says, all those people in the castle are crazy: and there is a suggestion that it is a privilege of rank to be so.

Exuberantly embodying this clutch of doomed elites, the ensemble is a joy to watch. Mallet, for instance, makes for a refreshingly energetic and engaging Hamlet and Price gives us one of the more sympathetic Claudios we've seen, while Ayora renders Horacio as a geeky sidekick and Sánchez-Pepper's Polonius analogue Apolonia is a riotously overbearing force of maternity seldom without a fan in her hand. Hamlet: La Telenovela realizes that rare achievement of making you wish that Hamlet were longer.

-John R. Ziegler and Leah Richards

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