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A ‘Hamlet’ Based on Brevity, the Soul of Wit, and Little Toys

Afshin Hashemi in “Hamlet, Prince of Grief,” a production by the Leev Theater Group of Iran, in the Under the Radar festival at the Public Theater. Courtesy NYTimes

It’s easy to think of activities that could reasonably be completed in a half-hour. You could cook a pasta puttanesca, get a solid workout on the treadmill, buy a tube of toothpaste at Duane Reade. 

But perform “Hamlet”? 

And yet that is the challenge met, after a fashion, by “Hamlet, Prince of Grief,” a production of the Leev Theater Group from Iran presented as part of the Under the Radar festival at the Public Theater. Performed in Farsi by the actor Afshin Hashemi, with English supertitles, the production is billed as freely adapted from the Shakespeare play. No kidding! 

“Prince of Grief” is a stylized, eccentric riff on “Hamlet” rather than a condensed version of the play, which is probably just as well. A half-hour trot through the text would probably come across as a joke, intentionally or not. 

Still, there’s significant humor in the Leev production, written by Mohammad Charmshir and directed by Mohammad Aghebati. With the exception of Hamlet, personified by Mr. Hashemi, who remains seated at a table throughout the performance, the characters are symbolized by small plastic toys plucked from the battered suitcase that is the primary prop. Mr. Hashemi supplies them with individual voices. 

Gertrude — or rather the protagonist’s mother, since no character names are used — is a tiny elephant, who pours the poison into her husband’s ear with the help of her long curved trunk. That’s one point where the story intersects directly (more or less) with the original. But for the most part there is little continuity between the contemporary (though not particularly Iranian) story being told and Shakespeare’s grand tragedy. 

With dark, expressive eyes and a rich, versatile voice, Mr. Hashemi is a compelling presence, ably suggesting a man haunted by the agonizing tale he must recount. It begins with the Hamlet figure escaping his studies by driving out to the countryside with some friends (enter a little toy truck) for a day of relaxation. On a billboard the hero catches sight of a portentous phrase: “To be or not to be.” Still, on they drive. 

But cellphone interruptions derail the fun, and soon the protagonist is forced to confront the dark knowledge that his mother has conspired with his uncle (plastic dinosaur) to kill his father (plastic lion). Much brooding unhappiness ensues, including an encounter with his father’s ghost, grappling with some angels; and the death of Ophelia, who at least is allowed to go to her rest in humanlike form: she’s a Barbie-type doll with luxuriously long tresses. 

While it’s nominally funny to see some of English literature’s most famous characters represented by children’s toys, the silliness necessarily undermines the seriousness of the story. Mr. Hashemi’s quacking-bird Polonius was pretty delightful, but a little of this goes a long way — even at 30 minutes (or so). The concentrated intensity of Mr. Hashemi’s performance held my attention, but any emotional engagement with the story was disrupted by his playful manipulation of his little plastic menagerie. 

Still, since I have endured many an interminably long and equally emotionally unsatisfying “Hamlet,” I will admit there’s something to be said for arriving at the play’s sanguinary conclusion in less time than it takes some actors to put on their makeup. 

Created by Leev Theater Group; written by Mohammad Charmshir; directed by Mohammad Aghebati; performed by Afshin Hashemi; music by Keyhan Kalhor; assistant directors, Mehdi Shahoseini, Elham Gol Jamal and Ehsan Safarzadeh. A Leev Theater Group production, presented by the Public Theater as part of the Under the Radar Festival, Oskar Eustis, artistic director; Patrick Willingham, executive director; Mark Russell, festival director. At the Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street, at Astor Place, East Village; publictheater.org. Through Sunday. Running time: 30 minutes. 

Via NYTimes
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