GableStage, Biltmore Hotel,
1200 Anastasia Ave., Coral Gables, Fla.
($37.50-$50), 305-445-1119, closes Feb. 10
Coral Gables, Fla.
How do you make Shakespeare's plays more easily accessible to potentially interested people who feel intimidated by their high seriousness and high-flown rhetoric? Turning them into big-budget movies with big-name casts doesn't hurt, but it's been a decade and a half since Baz Luhrmann's "Romeo + Juliet" rang the box-office gong, and it's far from clear that such films actually persuade many of those who view them to try seeing a Shakespeare play onstage. My guess is that the only way to make the sale is to lure the customer into a theater for a live performance. So what's the best way to bring that about?
GableStage, a lively and accomplished company in this suburb of Miami, is putting on a "Hamlet" specifically designed to do the job. Originally created by Tarell Alvin McCraney for London's Royal Shakespeare Company, it's a multiracial modern-dress version that runs for 90 intermission-free minutes, nearly three hours shorter than an uncut production. The unhappy Dane is played by a Latino actor, Edgar Miguel Sanchez, who carries a knife in a shoulder holster and is in love with a jumper-clad Ophelia (Mimi Davila). Fear not, though: Mr. McCraney isn't trying to turn the most admired of all classical verse dramas into "2B or Nt 2B." Except for a sprinkling of Spanish-language lines, this "Hamlet" is devoid of high-concept gimmickry. What's more, it's acted on an Elizabethan-style stage by a cast of eight performers—and it moves fast.
It stands to reason that a 90-minute "Hamlet" can't be poetic other than in passing. The members of Mr. McCraney's cast reportedly refer to his production as "Hamlet, the Action Movie," and that's pretty much what it is, except that the dialogue is a lot better and nothing blows up. The staging is satisfyingly spare and direct. The occasional touches of slapstick don't work very well, but otherwise it's played straight down the center, ending with a sensational fight scene. Mr. Sanchez is handsome and energetic—it will be interesting to see what he does with the role a decade from now—and Alana Arenas is highly impressive as Queen Gertrude.
What about the text? Working from the shorter First Quarto version, Mr. McCraney and Bijan Sheibani, his editorial collaborator, have made some shrewd choices, the neatest of which comes at the top of the show: Mr. Sanchez sets the evening in motion with Hamlet's "To be or not to be" soliloquy, a what-it's-all-about gambit that reminded me of how Laurence Olivier led off his 1948 film version of "Hamlet" by informing the audience that it was about to see "the story of a man who could not make up his mind." Overall, the results are somewhat choppy but entirely coherent.
This "Hamlet" will be mounted at several Miami high schools after it wraps up its GableStage run next month. It would have been fun to watch a roomful of teenagers responding to "Hamlet, the Action Movie." On the other hand, the matinee performance that I saw in Coral Gables on Sunday attracted a fair number of middle-age first-timers (you could tell from their frequent gasps of surprise) who gave every indication of being totally wrapped up in Shakespeare's plot. That being the whole point of the exercise, I'd say that Mr. McCraney is onto something.—Mr. Teachout, the Journal's drama critic, blogs about theater and the other arts at www.terryteachout.com. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Water by the Spoonful
Second Stage Theatre,
305 W. 43rd St., New York ($79),
212-246-4422, closes Feb. 10
The first 10 minutes of "Water by the Spoonful," Quiara Alegría Hudes's Pulitzer-winning play about recovering drug addicts who hunger for a sense of community, contains phrases like "dial the digits" and "tappin' some extra on the side" and references to Whole Foods, quinoa, recycling and texting, at the end of which we find ourselves in a chat room for crackheads. Rarely will you see a serious play—and this one is deadly serious—that tries so hard to sound up to the minute. Once you get used to the constant rattle of contemporaneity, though, you'll likely find much of "Water by the Spoonful" to be genuinely involving. Be forewarned, though, that it's a little bit sentimental and more than a little bit earnest, at times to the point of outright humorlessness (Ms. Hudes doesn't exactly go in for ironic detachment). It's also overcrowded with incident: too many characters, too many subplots, too much information all around. But it doesn't lack passion, and though you may find some of Ms. Hudes's characters to be overobviously drawn, you'll never fail to want to know what happens to them.
Good direction by Davis McCallum, good sets by Neil Patel. The cast is very fine, especially Sue Jean Kim, an exciting young actor who is new to me. I hope to see her again—soon.—T.T.
A version of this article appeared January 25, 2013, on page D8 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Cutting to the Chase.