Theater Review - Does Day of Murders measure up? That is the question

Koltes' elliptical take on Hamlet doesn't translate

Supposedly, more books have been written about the fictional character Hamlet than most historical figures. As the tragic title hero of possibly the English language's greatest play, Hamlet contains so many complexities and contradictions, it's no wonder scholars find him nearly as fascinating as Abraham Lincoln or Jesus Christ.

In the The Day of Murders in the History of Hamlet, now playing at 7 Stages, late French playwright Bernard-Marie Koltès offers a jazz-like variation on the melancholy Dane with a modern setting, updated language and a cast stripped down to four characters. Day of Murders continues the U.S. Koltès Project, a 10-year commitment to translate and produce works by the French writer, such as In the Solitude of Cotton Fields in 2008. Unfortunately, no writer looks good when held alongside Shakespeare's genius.

Translated from the French by Jennifer Orth-Veillon, Day of Murders replaces Shakespeare's blank verse with elliptical, abstract language, losing the poetry of the original without sounding natural. Occasionally, Hamlet (Joey Boren) recites such clunky lines, he seems to be intentionally portrayed as a terrible, brooding poet: "So! Your time's come! Sponges! Sponges! Sponges!" he declaims following his father's death. This Hamlet sometimes turns an elegant phrase – "As for the new king, you'll be like an apple slice in the corner of his jaw" – but overall, Boren comes across like one of Jason Schwartzman's pip-squeak poseurs from Wes Anderson's movies.

The play examines his dynamics with his sort-of girlfriend Ophelia (Anna Simonton), his mother Gertrude (Kate Moran), and his usurping uncle Claudius (Isma'il ibn Conner). Productions usually envision Gertrude as a middle-aged MILF, but Moran comes across more like a leggy queen of Manhattan nightlife. Although she doesn't look remotely old enough to be Boren's mother, Moran's portrayal of the queen as a doomed socialite provides Day of Murders' most memorable character. When the production reimagines Shakespeare's mother-son conversation using cell phones, however, the meta-theatrical gimmick overshadows their relationship.

The better you know Shakespeare's play, the more easily you'll be able to follow Koltès' riff on Hamlet, which loosely follows the arc of the plot but rearranges the order of some scenes. Theoretically, the play sheds more light on Gertrude and Claudius' dysfunctional marriage and examines the king's anxieties about affairs of state. Even Shakespeare experts may find the intentions of The Day of Murders in the History of Hamlet nearly impenetrable, however. And though Hamlet is Shakespeare's longest play and Day of Murders runs but 90 minutes, the comparison reveals a loophole in Shakespeare's observation that brevity is the soul of wit.

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