Tuesday, April 14, 2015


Photo: Carol Rosegg
Hamlet's a real pain in the ass, if you ask me. I don't mean the titular protagonist, though he's a pill, too. I'm talking about the show itself, which is so well-known, so riddled with famous phrases, so regularly referenced, and so often staged that, in CSC artistic director Brian Kulick's words, Hamlet "is really not a play anymore--it's kind of a sporting event: You come, you watch, you know it, and you wait--you see, well, how does Hamlet do 'to be or not to be?' How does this Hamlet do 'O this too too solid flesh?'" Hamlet might be a challenge to seasoned performers and directors in this respect, but I'm neither, so I don't feel like a total moron admitting that the very thought of tackling a show everyone knows so well--one whose lead character comes off as maddeningly mopey and indecisive; whose plot doesn't really progress all that much; and whose characters mostly stand around brooding for three-plus hours, uttering lines so familiar that they've become cliches, only to end up in an orgiastic hamster-pile of death in the last scene--seems to me like a nightmare.

The production of Hamlet at CSC, however, shook me out of my own trepidation. It is sleek and engaging, well-staged, and solidly performed. I am not convinced that the production, which takes a highly stylized, contemporary approach, will appeal to everyone (and indeed, a handful of people left during intermission at the matinee I saw). But at least as I see it, for all the glum indecision, confusing character motivations, and lack of taut pacing that this particular Shakespeare play packs into its lengthy five acts, the CSC production pays off in the end. There are very few sudden moves and no stage gore (though the deliciously scenery-chewing Glenn Fitzgerald, as a slow-burning Laertes, finally pops off at the end by racing around the house while bellowing madly, which is awesome). Yet the show never drags, thanks to the intensity of the company and the shrewd, careful direction of Austin Pendleton.

This production places Hamlet in a strange, contemporary dreamworld: the stark black-and-white set is evocative at once of a slick hotel catering to business-casual executives and a gaudy Russian nightclub (update: It's Claudius and Gertrude's wedding reception! I missed this because clearly, I am dumb). Either way, its players fit the setting: the cast is clad in dark suits and tasteful dresses, and much of the action takes place at and around a table attractively set with dinnerware and many, many bottles of wine (more booze is off to either side, on bars that various cast-members sit at between scenes).

Even more important than the way this company looks is the way it sounds. Contemporizing Shakespeare often makes tricky shows even trickier. Putting a bunch of actors in 1980s formal wear, flapper gowns, or biker gear might seem interesting at first, but then how to explain all the thees and thous, the forsooths and 'swounds and bodkins? Why, if we're supposed to be in, say, prohibition-era Chicago or the antebellum South, is everyone speaking in that faux high-British accent Shakespeare plays always seem to encourage? Clearly, Pendleton has encouraged his cast not to follow suit, and thus the performers apply contemporary speech patterns, nuances, and tics to the dialogue. As a result, actors deliver their lines much the way they might conduct a business transaction or a chat over cell phones or cocktails. It took me a while to get used to the approach, but I bought it quickly enough that by the time Gertrude (the warily expressive and, I presume, British-born actress Penelope Allen) made her entrance, found myself wondering, if only for a moment, why the hell she was speaking in a British accent. I assure you, this has never before happened to me while watching Shakespeare.

Whether you buy this production or not depends, I think, on how married you are to the famous dialogue. If you want to hear Hamlet's soliloquies spoken reverently, with weighty appreciation for every famous syllable, you might be disappointed, because the characters talk like the people you share your office with. Peter Sarsgaard's Hamlet, for example, is a wiry, world-weary hipster--the kind who wears his shiny, open-collar shirts ironically. Thus some of his most iconic lines--"to be or not to be" and all that stuff about slings and arrows--are rattled off almost as afterthoughts, with appropriate eye-rolling, arm-flailing, over-it gestures of impatience.

Yet by placing less emphasis on the language--which, let's face it, we all know is poetic and gorgeous--the production allows for its characters to sink deeply, and thus somewhat more believably, into their contemporary world. The always awesome Stephen Spinella, as Polonius, is a blathering and self-important middle-manager, eager to please the boss, Claudius (Harris Yulin, understated and grumbly). His daughter, Ophelia (Lisa Joyce, plaintive and searching if also a little unsure about what to do with her hair), is a free-wheeling hippie-chick in a gauzy dress who finally buckles under too much stress. Guildenstern (a watchful, concerned Daniel Morgan Shelley) and Rosencrantz (Scott Parkinson, impish and funny) are Hamlet's booze-swigging, coke-snorting bros. They love their friend but just totally can't, like, figure out what the fuck is up with him now that he's lost all his mirth. And because I didn't mention them but thought that they, too, were fine, Austin Jones played a long-suffering, buttoned-down Horatio, and Jim Broaddus was a number of supporting characters, including Barnardo and Voltemand. Kudos to the whole cast and creative team for making a famous--and famously difficult--play seem so effortless. I'm tempted to end this review with a line from the show, but you've heard them all before. Just not quite like this.

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