SARASOTA — One advantage of the Asolo Repertory Theatre's Spanish-language production of Hamlet, Prince of Cuba — or Hamlet, el Principe de Cuba — is the familiarity of the story. Like going to a well-known opera in another language than English, say, La Boheme or Carmen, it was easy to become absorbed in the performance Thursday night, when the company premiered a new Spanish translation by Nilo Cruz.
As a rudimentary Spanish speaker at best, I can't judge Cruz's version, but it sounded good, and the famous speeches, like Ser or no ser, he aqui la pregunta (To be or not to be, that is the question), weren't hard to pick out. There were English supertitles above the proscenium arch, though much of the enthusiastic audience seemed to be fluent in Spanish.
Frankie J. Alvarez, above, was sensational as Hamlet. Instead of the melancholy Dane of cooler, more analytical interpretations, he was a hot-blooded firebrand of a prince, an approach that worked well in director Michael Donald Edwards' fast-paced adaptation, which sets the play in 19th century Cuba around the time of the war for independence from Spain. Alvarez and other principals are bilingual. With the exception of a couple of actors, the cast has been performing Shakespeare's tragedy in English since March and deserve magnificent kudos for now switching to Spanish in such convincing fashion.
With Alvarez's Hamlet anchoring the drama, any language barrier soon slipped away in the inspired portrayals of Claudio (Emilio Delgado), Gertrudis (Mercedes Herrero), Laertes (Andhy Mendez) and Ofelia (Gisela Chipe). With an excellent set (designed by Dane Laffrey) and costumes (Clint Ramos), the production is interesting looking but not particularly Cuban, except for a Santeria shaman (Gonzalo Madurga) in tropical white, puffing on a cigar. A highlight was the duel between Hamlet and Laertes.
Though the analogy is far from exact, Edwards' adaptation suggests parallels between Hamlet and Cuban history, with Claudio, the morally compromised ruler, as Batista and the rebellious Hamlet as Castro. One explicit reference is Fortimbras (Tony Stopperan) coming upon the carnage at the end as a Teddy Roosevelt-style Rough Rider.