May 08, 2008

Hamlet

A lot of plays start slow, and Shakespeare in particular often takes at least a few scenes before I can really get into the flow of the show; this production was worse at that than most, in that I felt it didn't hit its stride until after the intermission. The second half was riveting, but in the first half there were just too many times when a line would go by and either a word or two got mumbled or the grammar just required too much processing and didn't have time to be understood before the next line came. It helped that I remembered the general plot (or I would have been really lost), of course. And different cast members overcame the language problems to different extents and in different ways: Meghan Reardon (as Ophelia), for instance, somehow managed to arrange the declamation of text itself in such a way that I understood it much more readily. Ariel Lauryn (as, primarily, Polonius) was great at conveying the general sense of the lines, through the prosody of the line and body language, and many if not most of the actors gave extra-textual cues to help punctuate the text (for which credit presumably also goes to Liz Carlin-Metz, the director). Still, though, the first half, particularly the exposition, is going to be hard for anyone who isn't already pretty familiar with the text.

I found myself focussing on voices quite a bit. When Joey Firman, who also played Claudius, first spoke as the Ghost, in an attention-grabbing sotto voce about five steps lower and considerably richer than the regular speaking voice he used for Claudius, I thought, that can't possibly be him. It was, though, and it really worked. A bit later, listening to Devan Cameron (Gertrude), I was struck by the silky, rich alto and how iconically this lent maturity to the role (important, since she had decided to play Gertrude as naïvely unaware of Claudius's crime, and naïveté plus her age could easily have misfired and turned the role into some sort of ingenue). Way at the other end of the play, after Ophelia has gone crazy, I was forced to wonder what other productions could possibly do when they don't have Meghan Reardon's lovely singing voice disarming you with surreal pleasantness as you watch her going quite mad.

For a while it looked like Matt Allis was aiming for a depiction of Hamlet as a mopey, vaguely goth character, though that may have just been the all-black outfit and the general poutiness of the first few scenes. I quite liked the reading of Hamlet as, essentially, a college kid, with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as his college buddies. (Passing the joint around was brilliant.) As the play wore on, though, he developed the character into a much stronger take-charge sort of fellow; and though I seem to recall Hamlet's character as moving from feigned madness to real madness, I didn't so much get that here. He's pissed and occasionally loses control of the anger, but right up to the lamentable, tragic end, he seems to know exactly what he's doing. What really stood out were the monologues—and perhaps I should say The Monologues—which on some level constitute a risk. The meditations on death ("To be or not to be..." and "Alas, poor Yorick....") are by this point so frequently done outside Hamlet that their place in pop culture is as the schlockiest, most clichéed examples of monologue, parodied six ways from Sunday, and so even a decent performance could easily come across as terribly banal. Matt's reading of these was a lot better than decent, and reminds us why these lines (and others) became so famous in the first place.

This show had a lot of little things to love. Polonius's reading of Hamlet's letter, buzzing through the irrelevant parts and then slowing down to carefully read the lines he wanted to highlight. As mentioned above, the brilliant interpretation of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as pot smokers. The first player (Keegan Siebken) totally ignoring Hamlet's stage direction monologue, to the point of nonchalantly climbing a twenty-foot pole to fiddle with one of the can lights. The wonderful presence of Ophelia's mute spirit at her own burial. Ariel's run as the clown gravedigger, just the tiniest bit reminiscent of her Edward from Cloud Nine back in the fall.

The show was staged mostly in Studio Theatre, a decidedly unusual choice for the "mainstage" show. I loved the intimate feel it gave to the piece. The rampart scenes, lit only by the flashlights held by the actors, would have played very differently in Harbach. (And I did like the flashlight-lighting, but I wish there had been a bit less of blinding the audience with careless gestures; maybe there could be some effort to point them over our heads for the most part?) There were some minor technical issues, like actors walking in and out of their light, and poles that sometimes creaked as if the whole thing were coming down. There was also the larger issue of lack of ventilation; by the end of the show, the oxygen ratio in the room seemed decidedly lower than at the start, a problem that will only get worse with the larger crowds that the weekend will bring. And three hours is a long time to sit in a metal folding chair. :P

But I say "mostly" in Studio, because for the last scene the whole audience was moved, via the backstage area, into Harbach, where both the stage lights and the house lights were up. Almost paradoxically, the huge increase in space made it feel even more intimate, as it highlighted the small size of the audience, and as we were ranged about the fencing floor, we got to feel even more like we're in Claudius's court and participants in the spectacle. Which made it unbelievably intense when Claudius screamed in my ear as Hamlet stabbed him, not three feet away from me. I could have reached out and touched them. It pretty much blew my mind; it was a helluva climax to a good show.

"you do begin to wonder who is truly the realist in this debate, and who the romantic. We live, as [Wendell] Berry has written (in an essay called 'The Total Economy'), in an era of 'sentimental economics,' since the promise of global capitalism, much like the promise of communism before it, ultimately demands an act of faith: that if we permit the destruction of certain things we value here and now we will achieve a greater happiness and prosperity at some unspecified future time." --Michael Pollan

Posted by blahedo at 2:40am on 8 May 2008
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