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.


Jamie said...

Great review. I was there for the Comedy of Errors with I feel they pulled off rather nicely (Especially for the price, Free:),
I will most likely be going to the Blackfriar within the next month or two to catch Hamlet and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. It sounds like a fun twofer.

Ty Unglebower said...

Jamie, Thank you for your comments. As Hamlet is so far the only show I have seen by this company, I cannot speak as to what Comedy of Errors was like, but it seems you enjoyed it.

I would also be interested in hearing you impression of their Hamlet, if you do go to see it. Do comment back here, if you are willing, to give me your impressions.

Thanks for stopping by!