Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Hamlet at the American Shakespeare Center

Hamlet is the most iconic play in the Shakespeare canon.   It is frequently produced.   This reviewer has seen several productions of Hamlet by different professional theater companies over the past two seasons alone.    How can one make a production of Hamlet stand out amongst the competition?   How about flipping a coin before each performance to decide in which order you will be performing pivotal scenes in the play?

This experiment is taking place on the Blackfriar's Playhouse stage in Staunton, Virginia.   As artistic director and director of the production, Jim Warren explains in his notes in the program, "my plan is to work up two versions of the show and perform the Q1 (first quarto) sequence on some nights and the F1/Q2 (first folio/second quarto) sequences on other nights."    How does this affect the course of the play?  Substantially.    Scholars and theater professionals have a plethora of choices to make when examining Hamlet.    The different extant texts have different line lengths ranging from the 2800-2900 of the first quarto to 3800 in the second quarto.   Most productions substantially cut the production to make it a more manageable length.  By excising certain scenes or characters it shapes the play.   Lose the political drama of the invasion of Denmark by Norway and you create a play that focuses solely on the rotten state of affairs in the accession to the throne by King Claudius and his o'er hasty marriage to his brother's widow, Queen Gertrude.   In the American Shakespeare Center's production, the Fortinbras secondary story is intact, yet, but examining the conflicting scene order the director and his company of actors is examining the urgency of Prince Hamlet's revenge plot.   For one version seems more logical than the other.  Yet, by presenting both versions, the audience has a chance to explore the dramatic possibilities to be discovered in this 400 year old play.

The evening attended by this reviewer the fate of the coin decided on the first quarto sequence.   That means that the to be or not to be soliloquy and the admonishment to Ophelia to "get thee to a nunnery" comes first, followed by Hamlet calling Polonius a fishmonger, the greeting of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and asking them if they were sent for or have come to visit on their own.   Then the players arrive and Hamlet asks them to perform the play The Murder of Gonzago.   Hamlet tells the audience that the players will perform a play like the murder of Hamlet's father and he will watch Claudius for a guilty reaction so that he can learn if the Ghost has told Hamlet the truth about his death.   Please see the end of the review for the alternative scene sequence.

No matter the sequence used on the performance you choose to attend, you are in for the usual briskly paced and well-acted production that is the hallmark of the American Shakespeare Center.   There are strong performances delivered by the entire cast, yet a few choices do not ring true.  Yet, despite its few shortcomings this is an excellent choice for a wonderful evening of theater.

Rene Thornton, Jr. is a strong and menacing Ghost.   Mr. Thornton gets to show his comedic side as the fop courtier Osric and as part of the very entertaining ensemble of players come to perform at the Danish court.  Alongside Chris Johnston, Gregory Jon Phelps and John Basiulis, Mr. Thornton provides welcome comic relief as the "actors" prepare to perform.   Yet, he brings clarity and pathos to the famed Hecuba speech that Prince Hamlet asks him to declaim.

One of the delights of this production is the family dynamic between Polonius, Laertes and Ophelia.   Benjamin Curns' Polonius is the comedic buffoon one expects, but he is also a loving father to Laertes and Ophelia.   Gregory Jon Phelps shows genuine love and concern that his sister not be hurt by Hamlet's profession of love.  It is welcome to see this family truly a functional family unit rather than some productions that make the characters abusive to Ophelia.  

The true abuse to Ophelia comes from Hamlet himself.    Miriam Donald shows bewilderment, compassion, terror and love towards Hamlet despite his very cruel behavior towards her.    Her mad scene is heartbreaking.   Here is a young woman unhinged by grief, who includes the audience in her pointed gifts of flowers and provides a devastating portrayal of a young woman destroyed by her love killing her father.

James Keegan's King Claudius is complex.   While he is a villain and his plotting to rid himself of Hamlet in the face of Hamlet's unnerving drive to see justice done for the Ghost's murder is ever present, the one moment that Claudius shows genuine remorse is the more believable as Mr. Keegan tries to gain atonement in prayer to no avail.

Unfortunately he is not matched in complexity by Blythe Coons' Queen Gertrude.   Partly this is the fault of the way the character is written.   Gertrude upon the page can be very passive, meekly staying loyal to Claudius until her inadvertent death at his hands.   Yet, if an actress makes some choices the character can take on emotional layers.  Yet, here there is nothing beyond bare amazement as Gertrude witnesses her son talking to what she believes to be an imaginary Ghost.   And while she shows adequate despair at the madness of Ophelia, there is no tinge of recognition of any guilt given the barbs that Ophelia addresses directly to Gertrude.

Patrick Midgley is a dynamic Horatio.   Frequently this role is simply Hamlet's sounding board and the witness to the events of the play.    Here, Mr. Midgley creates a true friend, who grows from skeptic about  the events the Ghost has related to Hamlet to genuine enthusiast for Hamlet's revenge plans once he witnesses Claudius' reaction to the players' Murder of Gonzalo.     His grief at the carnage at the end of the play and the death of his best friend is heartfelt.

Hamlet the play is successful based on the actor who assays the title role.   John Harrell amply succeeds.   His Hamlet is dour and bitter at the beginning of the play and genuinely eager for one last moment with the father he so loved when the Ghost beckons to him.     Mr. Harrell shows us a Hamlet who gradually becomes unhinged by the knowledge the Ghost gives him about his murder, so that when Hamlet appears disheveled as Ophelia describes him to be, it is clear to the audience that despite his declaration to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern that he is "but mad north-northwest." he is unnerved by the events of the play.    Yet, Mr. Harrell provides a steely nerve towards the revenge he is bound and determined to exact on his murderous uncle.    It is a complex performance that is mesmerizing, uncomfortable to watch at times, yet a triumphant feat of masterful skill.

This is a memorable Hamlet.   Make the journey to the Blackfriar's to enjoy its final few performances.

Hamlet by William Shakespeare will be performed in repertory with The Tempest, Henry V, Christopher Marlowe's Tamburlaine the Great and Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest through November 26, 2011.   For tickets and other performance information, please visit

The first folio/second quarto scene sequence is as follows.   Hamlet calls Polonius a fishmonger then greets Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and asks if they were sent for or are visiting on their own.  The players arrive and Hamlet requests they perform The Murder of Gonzago.   Hamlet tells the audience the players will perform a play like the murder of his father and will watch Claudius's reaction to learn if the Ghost tells the truth.  Polonius positions Ophelia where Hamlet will see her while Polonius and Claudius eavesdrop.   Hamlet questions to be or not to be and tells Ophelia to get thee to a nunnery.

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