Hamlet may very well be theatre’s Mount Everest: many have dreamed of scaling it, relatively few have actually tried, and even fewer have had the strength, temerity and talent to succeed. For that reason I approached the Papaya King Repertory Theatre’s production of Hamlet in the New Ha Grocery on the corner of 14th Street and Seventh Avenue with the same sense of trepidation as I do all takes on the Bard’s classic tale. I’m happy to say that my fears were short-lived.
After a few glitches – the entrance to New Ha is small and a fat man with a walker was blocking it – I stood next to the Pepperidge Farm display for the next three hours and found myself immersed in the world of Hamlet as envisioned by Papaya King Repertory’s longtime director Christian Phelps.
Veteran actor Michael Smalinowski, a regular in nine of the twelve Law & Order spin-offs, was brilliantly cast as the Great Dane. Were it not for New Ha’s blaring fluorescent lights one could imagine a spotlight singling him out as he delivered flawless monologue after flawless monologue, never once losing concentration or intensity, even when being asked to move out of the way of the bodega’s ATM.
Jennifer Yam was such a convincing Ophelia that during her brilliant “mad scene” the store’s clerk threatened to call the police. After a few reassurances in Korean from Martin Kong (Horatio) he calmed down and the remainder of the scene was only briefly interrupted by a disheveled patron seeking soy milk.
Also worth noting was Timothy Perdue, a brilliant choice for the role of Polonius, whose excellent performance was sadly obscured by a rack of Frito-Lay products. Danielle King’s Gertrude was quite inspired though she tended to break character when customers shouted lottery numbers at the clerk. She appeared to be exceptionally allergic to the bodega’s cat.
The play’s dramatic end was rendered even more chaotic by the closing of Flannery’s Bar next door. Drunken patrons seeking New Ha’s legendary pasta salad filtered in and were at first alarmed by the swordplay between Hamlet and Michael Klein’s Laertes. Fortunately, after a few moments, they seemed to appreciate the performance – aside from an uncultured few who made snide comments along the lines of “Fortinbras panties” and “Ophelia boobies.”
The actors, when dying, chose to squat rather than lie on New Ha’s filthy floors.
In all, Papaya King’s production of Hamlet has a few occasional hiccups but is, in the end, an enjoyable production in a venue that charges $1.21 more for milk than the guy down the street.