Deputy Arts Editor Grace Novarr reviews Hamlet, a collaboration between the King’s Crown Shakespeare Troupe and the Circus Collective, which ran at the Glicker-Milstein Theatre on March 31, April 1, and April 2.
I arrived at the Glicker-Milstein Theatre not quite knowing what to expect from Hamlet, a surprising sentence to utter given that the play is one that I, and many people, are quite familiar with as an element both of the cultural consciousness and of many a high school curriculum. But this production was different: it was a collaboration between the King’s Crown Shakespeare Troupe and the Columbia Circus Collective, and, having never seen a Shakespeare production brought to the circus before, I didn’t know what the night had in store for me.
The show, directed by Sam Landa (CC ‘22), turned out to be utterly delightful, as the immense talents of the cast of actors and dancers ensured that each beat of the show was visually stunning and emotionally intense. As the plot unfolded, dancers and acrobats accompanied the actors on the stage, lending the production an air of high fantasy. Ry Spada (CC ‘24) played Lady Hamlet encountering the ghost of her murdered father, represented by Angela Zhang (CC ‘22), who performed impressive acrobatics on ropes that descended from the ceiling, with an ethereal effect.
The play follows Hamlet, the Prince of Denmark, who is dealing with the death of her father and the almost immediate remarriage of her mother to her father’s brother, Claudius. After the ghost of her father reveals that he was murdered by Claudius, Hamlet seeks revenge. Other members of the court begin to question Hamlet’s sanity as she begins acting erratically, especially towards Ophelia, with whom she has a romantic relationship. The audience is also brought into the ambiguity of Hamlet’s mental state, and this production leaned into the unhinged drama of Hamlet’s psychological torment, symbolizing it with dance and circus elements. Landa’s direction incorporated other surprising elements—a recurring motif was that of a 1950s television series on psychology, which was projected on the stage at various points to corroborate the characters’ madness, such as during Ophelia’s final scene before her drowning.
The acting was uniformly excellent. Shayan Hooshmand (CC ‘23) was hilarious as Polonius, and his speech to his children, Laertes (Filip Przybycien, CC ‘24) and Ophelia (Nina Dia, CC ‘25) was a highlight of the first act. Spada’s tormented, confused Hamlet was vivid and real, and she had excellent onstage chemistry with Armand Procacci (CC ‘23) as Horatio. The charged relationship between Hamlet and Horatio is always a key element of the play, and this production carried off that aspect well—tears came to my eyes during the final scene, as Hamlet died in Horatio’s arms, their faces inches apart.
John Howley (CC ‘25) and Josie Bourelly (CC ‘23), as the murderous Claudius and the traitorous Gertrude, were convincing and unnerving in their respective roles. Howley, especially, was effective in his portrayal of Claudius’ guilt and shame: his soliloquy, near the end of the first half, captivated the audience as he struggled to pray for forgiveness for his misdeeds. The king and queen’s seriousness was nicely contrasted by the giggly and hilarious Guildenstern (Jacqueline Real, GS ’22) and Rosencrantz (Caroline Egler, BC ‘24), who are called in to figure out what’s up with their old school friend, Hamlet. Spada portrayed Hamlet’s derangement with appropriately unnerving commitment, creating real tension as she baffled her friends and family. This took a heartbreaking turn when Hamlet scorns Ophelia with the famous “Get thee to a nunnery!” speech, rejecting the love of a woman she’d just been courting.
Ophelia’s death scene was one of the show’s most gorgeous sequences. The production creatively staged her drowning by placing a transparent box with a thin layer of water on the stage, and the drowning took the form of a dance performed by Alex Bilder (BC ‘24), who contorted herself around the box in a beautiful and moving performance that received howls of applause.
The blend of circus elements into the show felt seamless and elevated the show into a unique work of art. Maia Castro-Santos (CC ‘25) was especially impressive as a circus performer, showcasing a variety of talents, including spinning a hula hoop on her foot and performing aerial silk tricks. She functioned as the circus shadow to Hamlet, acting out Hamlet’s emotional conflicts in a physical medium. Certain moments in the show, such as the end of the first act after Polonius’ killing and the final battle at the end of the play, were impressively choreographed to combine acting, dancing, music, and aerial performances that were captivating to watch. Julia Patella (BC ‘25), the choreographer, did an incredible job at making each dance performance feel consistent with the characterization and the emotional tone of the show. The overall effect of these scenes was chilling and thrilling simultaneously. Besides Ophelia’s death scene, another standout moment was Hamlet’s famous “To be or not to be” soliloquy, which, after being delivered by a tormented Spada, turned into an aerial silk sequence by Castro-Santos.
Occasionally, the music drowned out the performers’ voices, rendering the dialogue hard to hear. Nevertheless, this merely served as a reminder that this production of Hamlet was all about spectacle. As one of Shakespeare’s most intensely psychological plays, Hamlet is deeply internal, and dramatizing the inner conflict of the characters through dance and circus created a fundamentally different viewing experience than most productions of the play.
Overall, KCST and Circus Collective did masterful work with Hamlet, turning one of the most famous plays in the English canon into something utterly creative and original. Between the gorgeous costumes designed by Camille Marchini (BC ‘22), the striking set designed by Kristian Woerner (CC ‘22), and the impeccable direction, it’s hard to find fault with this production. It stands out as one of the most exciting theater experiences I’ve had at Columbia, and the instantaneous standing ovation the audience gave at the end of the show seems to corroborate my opinion.
Photo via Science Editor Kyle Murray’s iPhone