Thursday, March 26, 2009

American Shakespeare Center's Hamlet: An Extensive Review

I’ve always believed, (contrary to many scholars) that there are many different ways to interpret the works of Shakespeare. There are also many approaches to the works of Shakespeare. At first blush the two terms, interpretation and approach, may seem interchangeable, and in fact there is symbiotic relationship between the two for any given production. However there is in my mind a distinct difference.

Interpretation refers more to how individual characters are presented. The unique motivations that an individual actor brings to a specific role. (If a director is a truly good director. If they are a bad one, interpretation can refer to what the director orders the actors to make of their character.)

Approach, on the other hand, is the manner by which an entire production presents those interpretations to an audience. Because an approach is far more noticeable on the surface than is an interpretation, great care must be made not to allow an approach to overshadow the interpretation.

Yet, I must conclude that the most recent performance I saw of Hamlet, presented by the American Shakespeare Center at Hood College in Frederick, Maryland, fails to recognize this crucial differentiation.

The American Shakespeare Center, based in Staunton Virginia, is a traveling acting troupe which, in its own words,

…performs Shakespeare's works under their original staging conditions -- on a simple stage, without elaborate sets, and with the audience sharing the same light as the actors.

In other words, done on the cheap.

This is not to say that there is no place for minimalist Shakespeare. There is room in my heart for all sorts of Shakespeare interpretations and approaches. However, when one considers that this production failed to be as authentic as claimed, attempted to involve the audience too much, and sought too many laughs, (all prefaced by a half hour long “comic” presentation wherein we in the audience were repeatedly asked for money), I found the whole thing to be a bit off putting, despite some positive qualities.

Had it been billed as such, one could make a more informed decision about whether or not to take advantage of a free showing of this type of Hamlet. Obviously a large number of people enjoy that sort of in your face, bawdy affair. Sitting in audience members laps while performing, handing discarded props to front row patrons, or using people as hat racks during the middle of otherwise significant Shakespeare monologues are all actions that hold a very specific type of entertainment value for those not looking for traditional theatre.

Yet all of these sometimes distracting and occasionally inappropriate devices are claimed by the company as part of “how Shakespeare would have intended it.”

This is making quite a scholarly leap that, in my view, cannot be completely verified. Even the company told us “this is how many believe plays would have been performed” at the Globe in the 17th century. Claiming it as Shakespeare’s own way is to claim an authenticity that the proceedings did not deserve.

However, even if I were to suspend academic ambiguity on the subject and concede that plays would have been conducted in this manner during Shakespeare’s own time, I cannot for the life of me understand the near fetishism that many scholars and Shakespeare companies have with such an approach. As though the very mention of lighting a production of Shakespeare were somehow vulgar.

It’s almost an epidemic among self appointed “authentic Shakespeareans” to forgo the use of curtains, proscenia, sound effects, and in some cases, electricity itself, and I am not sure that the advantages outweigh the disadvantages.

If the words of Shakespeare were so intrinsically tied to the environment in which they were first performed, it seems unlikely that his popularity would survive to such levels to this very day, when those of contemporaries have not. (When’s the last time a theatre near you put on a Francis Beaumont play?) The magic, if not the miracle of the Bardic Canon is that the plays have survived things such as the discovery of electricity, the invention of the fly system, indoor staging, sound effects, cushioned seating, climate control, and the dying out of the groundlings. There is a reason for that endurance.

As I said at the start, attempting to recreate authentic Shakespearean staging is not illegitimate in its own right. Yet I reject the notion that “Shakespeare staging” is more authentic to the spirit of the pieces than would be a more conventional theatrical approach with the Fourth Wall intact.

Besides, I have to believe that Shakespeare, both as a businessman and a poet, would have been absolutely delighted with the notion of modern theatre capabilities. I think he would be overjoyed to know that eventually theatres would be able to use artificial light, make people appear to fly, produce wind, rain, and any sound effect that could be imagined, all while allowing for the comfort of patrons. ALL patrons. Just imagine what he would have written had he had access to such marvels!

In short, in my mind there is no more intrinsic nobility in so called “Shakespeare Staging” than there is any other approach to the works.

All of that being said, I still would find the approach more acceptable if it attempted to be as authentic as possible at all times. But in this case, the cast was singing Bob Dylan tunes while playing the accordion before the show. And a few electronic sound effects did make their way into the ghost scenes. Forget personal interpretations, both of those things very clearly fall outside of the realm of “Shakespeare Staging”, and there can be no disputing that. I didn’t mind them per se, but use of such things made the audacious claim of “performing as Shakespeare himself intended” all the more difficult for me to swallow. Commit to it totally, or do not lay claim to it at all. If you are going to sing Dylan, how about dimming the lights a bit during the show?

The insistence that they could not “for safety reasons” do exactly as Shakespeare had done things did little to dispel this dichotomy from my mind.

Physical staging aside, I also felt that in this production’s comic spectacles and audience interactions (presumably part of the Shakespeare Staging concept) often overshadowed any real, deeper understanding of the text of the play itself.

I mentioned some of these antics previously. Wiping sweat from one’s brow onto the sleeve of a patron even when nobody else is supposed to be there during the scene. Placing one’s backside within inches of a patron’s face. Threatening to dump water on the front row. It is without question entertainment of a certain fashion. But is it Hamlet? I fear I concluded that by the end, most of it was not Hamlet, because nearly two thirds of the entire abridgment, (four hours, down to two) was played for laughs, and Hamlet is simply not a comedy.

Scenes that had no business being played for humor were used to mine the audience for a guffaw or two. Such as, the “I have of late, but wherefore I know not, lost all my mirth” speech, during most of which Hamlet had a boot on his hand which he used as a horse puppet. The audience loved it, but why did they love it? Because it was a goofy visual that was funny in its own right. But it added nothing to the play. I suppose it is possible that the faux madness of Hamlet could be played for laughs at times, but not within the framework of one of Hamlet’s most moody speeches, (lost all my mirth…)

Again, interpretations abound as to any given speech, but for me, it seemed as though the whole company had been instructed to play for the laugh at almost every turn. It became “Hamlet: The Sitcom” after a while. (Complete with a pre-show warm up comedy act, as mentioned.) The result was that those who are less familiar with Shakespeare, the very types of people the company seems to want to reach the most, had a false sense of what the evening was to be like. The result? People laughing at times that even the company was not playing for laughs. (Such as the stabbing of Polonious…a point of high drama in the play.)

Establishing such an atmosphere gives newcomers quite the wrong idea about Hamlet, and gives those who have studied acting and Shakespeare (like me) cause to cringe at times. Especially during the death filled climax which, try as they may, the actors never quite elevated into the high drama it is designed to be. But then again after all of the ass shaking, audience teasing, winking and androgynous character doubling, it would be a task for anyone to steer things back into somberness.

And perhaps the cast did not want to. But if they didn’t, they truly have missed out on what the play is, to the disservice of audiences.

That is not to say there was no talent in this cast. There was. Yet that only serves to make this approach all the more dissatisfying in some key ways. As an actor, I know talent when I see it. I could sense what some in this cast were capable of. Yet I think much of the talent is misapplied in this production. Not wasted, because for what this production is, most of them do it well. But I could not help but think that any given actor in the show could shine much brighter, if their obvious talents were put to use in other types of projects. Even, perhaps other productions of Hamlet.

On that note, I must compliment Luke Eddy’s tackling of the lead role. Though his somewhat odd interpretation was probably in a very large degree tied to the overbearing company approach I have been describing, he survived the mountainous role intact.

It is clear that the cast has trained and practiced quite a bit. All of them possess some degree of acumen for the material, though it felt to me that what they truly possessed was a talent for comic improvisation that had been shoe horned into Shakespeare. The result was, in most cases, a high energy presentation. However, as I said, I am not sure it was Hamlet. It was more like a traveling comedy troupe that happened to use Shakespeare as its weapon.

I would, however, be remiss if I did not give particular kudos to Dennis Henry’s Polonious, and Aidan O’Reilly’s Horatio as being the most consistent performances in a sometimes inconsistent cast. Both of them came the closest to my expectations. And though they too were not immune to the extraneous audience ribbing, I got the impression that they both were doing so because that is what was done in this company, and not because they felt it was required in order to turn in a good Shakespearean performance.

I also cannot complain much about the abridgment. The whole play, Shakespeare’s longest, takes about four and a half hours to complete. Not practical for the mission of the company. However, the edits made did allow most of the cadence of the piece to remain in place. The only important plot line that was left ambiguous was the Fortinbras connection. Those not familiar with the play would likely find his arrival, or even his identity, to be confusing.

Other key plot points had the potential to be missed, if patrons were watching the kinetic background as opposed to the plot driving foreground. Too much going on sometimes.

Other utilitarian problems I had with the production were a lack of projection on the part of some actors, allowing their speeches to get swallowed when their backs were turned to the house. Entrances and exits were also in some cases poorly timed, characters nearly running into other characters that were not even supposed to be present in the scene.

In conclusion, this specific production of Hamlet was caught up in the misguided notion that it had to make the audience laugh as much as possible in order to draw them in. This was disappointing to me. Yet the mission of the American Shakespeare Center as a whole is an admirable one. They should be commended in many ways for that mission, and for the creativity with which they try to carry it out. Also commendable is the acting talent they have currently assembled. I am sure several of them would be very interesting to work with in less constricting circumstances.

Though I found myself perplexed, confused, and a bit annoyed at times, I do not consider my evening with them to have been a total waste.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Second Half of a Beginning, First Half of an End?

I did not get the part. In fact, I barely read at all tonight. (Despite mentioning a desire to read for several parts, the director declined.)

She then took me aside and told me she never could cast me because I was too young, no matter how good I had read.

I will let you, loyal blog readers, decide how rude it was to not tell me that sooner. I will also let all of you decide how rude I found it to be. But suffice it to say, I wish I had not had to drive that hour tonight...

But, it gives me more time to work on the one-man show.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Halfway Through a First

I auditioned today at the Winchester Little Theater. About an hour away from me. Those who follow this blog may remember talk of the place from when I participated in a staged reading of "Dinner with Friends". Read about that here.

This was the first time I had ever auditioned there for a regular show though, and it was to say the least a unique experience, as they, (or at least this director) does things differently than anywhere else I have done shows for.

It's a rather in depth audition. Two hours. But unlike many places, all of the people trying our are present at the same time in front of the director and her staff. They do not call people in groups at a time. I think this method has its advantages, but I confess to being a bit off guard for a bit, having expected something like I might find at other theatres for whom I have auditioned in the community.

An audition that very nearly didn't happen. I walked in before it all started, and got the impression the director didn't think I was old enough to play in the show. (I later learned I am older than she thought I was.) But upon hearing that she was expecting middle age actors, I began to leave. I didn't see any reason to waste anyone's time. But a few of the other people there persisted, pleading with me to stay and read anyway. One mentioned that there was a small part in the play, (which I hadn't read) that I seemed to be suited for. After much haggling, I agreed to stay and at least read for the small part.)

The play is "Funny Money" by Ray Cooney, and the part in question as that of a Cockney Taxi-driver. I have played Cockney's before, most notably in "Scrooge" a few years ago, and it was fun to read as such tonight. It must have gone well, because I was complimented on it by several people. (Including those who had asked me to stay when I otherwise might have gone.) And the producer noted that 31 was plenty old enough to drive a cab.

At the WLT, it seems that often people come to audition both nights. I hadn't planned on coming both nights, and mentioned that, which proceeded to make things a bit more difficult for the scenes the director wanted me to read for. I remained without anything to read for 40 minutes or so, as others switched back and forth reading the various parts. Finally, I told her that I would be happy to come back tomorrow, but I could not arrive exactly on time. This arrangement worked for them, and I read no more this evening.

So it is not really a call back in the truest sense of the word, but I am going back tomorrow...I suppose to read with new people who were not there today. And some people that I have worked with before, who were there tonight, and plan to return tomorrow. Always nice when there are at least some familiar faces.

We also did a brief exercises which I think I misunderstood. We were all supposed to count off in a circle, numbers by one. Each time it seems we were supposed to use a different voice when it came round to us. I didn't catch on to this until the third cycle. I could have asked, but that isn't easy when you do not know you have not understood.

Hopefully though, I made my point, and will make my point tomorrow.

My opinion is, if I get into the play, it will in fact be as the Taxi-driver. It was all that I read for, save one scene, and I put that on my sheet on the advice of the others.

So tomorrow night, I may know already. Stay tuned for this one.

Monday, March 09, 2009

In with the Old.

Community theatres tend not to do many shows that are hot off the presses as it were. A mixture of perennial hits, (especially musicals), and easy to obtain and comfortable straight shows are the norm for most of them most of the time. This can be a problem, in my opinion, but so can the opposite problem...not doing enough older scripts.

Or perhaps it is more accurate to say that theatres do not do enough older scripts that are lesser known. When it comes to plays over 100 years old, Shakespeare, Moliere, and once in a while a few of the Greek tragedies seem to be the limit. Yet those are done with considerable regularity in spite of their age because of their over all popularity today. Their fame transcends there age.

But what of shows whose age has sort of left them in the dust or theatrical oblivion? What about shows that were written 100-200 years ago about which most of us know nothing, because they have not been performed since? Either because they were never popular, or perhaps that their popularity was very much a product of the time they were written.

It would do theatres as well as actors, good to explore such plays. Theatres benefit because to do so is both original, and free, (such plays being in the public domain by this time.) The benefits gleaned for the actor should be obvious...exposure to the unfamiliar.

There is no such thing for the actor as exposure to too many different types of plays and scripts. The classics are classics for a reason, and exist as a genre until themselves. But a New England Drama released in 1843 in the height of the transcendentalist movement? An passion play from the turn of the 19th century? Plays written in such time periods and designed to reflect such periods' themes certainly would have a different feel in words, staging and plot than a lot of their more universal, timeless brethren, but would have something to teach us.

One of my own favorite monologue pieces which I have used more than once, (much to the confused chagrin of my one time acting professor) is an opening monologue from a play called Andre by William Dunlap, that was published and first performed in 1798. Believed to be the first American based tragedy, it was not popular in it's own time, and even the notoriety it gained decades after the fact remains deeply forgotten in what is the past to us. It is of vital scholarly importance, but few theatre people know of it. Which is a shame. I would try out for it if a community theatre had the temerity to buck convention and stage it.

Why? Because it is so different, so old, so forgotten, yet so clearly not Shakespearean or Greek. (Though it is a tragedy.)

Digging up such forgotten ancient scripts and getting directors willing to direct them, let alone actors willing to perform in them is certainly a challenge. But the actor should be about challenge, and I challenge theatres to look into some of these older, less popular texts.

Sunday, March 01, 2009

All By Myself??

Sunday has come again, loyal blog readers, and once again I write not of an opinion or advice, but of a plan percolating in my head in regards to my grasp on the ever changing craft of acting. (Why else would I be putting it here on AOB?)

To begin with, I do realize I have not been as regular as you might like in regards to the Sunday columns. Those who know me and this blog know that they tend to ebb and flow sometimes based on how busy my non-acting life becomes. I do have some ideas and columns socked away for future publication, once the times straighten themselves out a bit. So for those that crave them, just wait. The ship of weekly acting advise columns will right itself.

And you can always head over to and read my regular acting columns over there. They would love your readership as well.

That is not to say that people are not reading the older posts on THIS blog. I yet again received thanks for the now famous, most widely read (that I know of) entry in the history of this blog..."A Kiss Is Just a Kiss." I once again brought solace to someone who was about to engage in their first ever stage kiss in the near future. I have not heard from them again, but hopefully what i said provided yet another person with the tools they needed to proceed with that most awkward of acting milestones. If nothing else, this blog may go down in history for that entry alone.

Yet, I digress a bit. The point of the entry is to mention some ideas that I am having in regards to acting.

To begin with, I must consider if, next week this time, I wish to return to the Old Opera House for an audition. (The place where I used to do just about all of my acting.) They are having auditions for Ken Ludwig's "Leading Ladies". I know nothing about this play safe the basics. I do know that the Opera House seems to be bent on performing every single Ken Ludwig play currently in publication. The have done I believe three of them in the last 4 or 5 years. (I was in Moon Over Buffalo myself.) Not that there is anything wrong with that per se. I just think that Ludwig tends to repeat himself, and write basically the same type of play every time, just changing the setting and the characters. This one in particular deals with down on their luck actors...just as Moon Over Buffalo did. It may be fantastic, I have not read it. But I cannot help thinking that Ludwig has been here before.

Yet that is not to say I will not audition. I have not done anything at the Old Opera House for a few years. Though this particular director has never cast me in anything, and the Opera House itself has not been able to secure a role for me in any of it's shows for years, it may be worth it just to be back in a larger space. I am fond of all the time and adventures I have had with the up and coming Full Circle Theater Company, as these pages oft have shown, but I think everyone wants to be in a physically spacious performing space and back stage space sometimes. I am approaching one of those times.

Plus I have not been in a total farcical comedy for quite some time. Over a year. That can be good for the soul as well. So, it remains a possibility. Any thoughts on that would be appreciated.

The other major topic of contemplation for me has no specific date, other than in the "significant future. (Say no earlier than the end of this year, I would approximate.) I have mentioned this in passing before here on the blog, but now I will say upfront that I am considering doing a one man show. Not writing one, performing one that has already been published.

You will forgive me if I do not say which one man show at this time. I am refraining from that because I am not certain if it will come to pass, and I would not want word to get out about it, via this blog until things were more solid. But suffice to say I now have the script, have been reviewing it, and am slowly making the determination as to whether or not it is something I want to take on.

I have never done it before, and I have always said here on the blog how important it is to challenge oneself without breaking one's self. I do not believe this would break me. So part of me says I must at least try it...even if the idea is not popular among others.

I would be performing it at the Full Circle Theater. Initial reactions from the higher ups in that company have been positive, so I dare not throw away the idea before I give it total consideration. It would not be a main stage production, but maybe a special showing between official shows on their docket. Again, lots of details involved in this that really can't be considered much until I make an official decision, and until I see how long it takes to feel comfortable with the idea if i do decide to go ahead with it. But I have to be true to the blog's purpose by reporting that I am giving it serious consideration.

A one person show is a whole other beast. You do not get any of the usual support mechanisms you receive from having a cast to work with. Covering each other, moral support, bonding and increased fun. But to be fair, one also does not have to deal with the draw backs of having others in a show...egos, lack of preparation, varying degrees of dedication, and traffic problems. (For some, not all shows. But the risk is there at the start of every show with more than one person.)

But more than that, it gives an actor the chance to truly hone in on story telling ability, and pulling out of the air and making real those stimuli from which to draw reactions and mood. Things that the rest of the cast is usually there to enhance.

It also requires one to be extra aware of an audience, as the actor must draw them in even further to every word and every moment, since there are fewer distractions from the character, and the words they speak.

So, I shall spend a great deal of time in the near future going over the script and considering all of these things, and more, as I make my way towards a decision. You, my loyal blog readers, will be the first one's informed in the world of my decision. (And you will sooner than that know which one man show I am contemplating."