Friday, August 8, 2014

Hamlet, Prince Of Denmark (Shakespeare By The Sea 2014 Production) Theatre Review

Shakespeare By The Sea performs each year at various locations around Los Angeles. This year the company is performing both Hamlet, Prince Of Denmark and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. On August 6th, they performed Hamlet, Prince Of Denmark at Los Encinos State Historic Park in Encino. This marked the first time the company has played at this location.

The set for this production is a black wood platform with two main levels. At the top is a large flat in the shape of a cracked mirror, with a raven perched atop it (a reference to Hamlet's line, "the croaking raven doth bellow for revenge" in Act III). This is not the first Hamlet production to have a cracked mirror as a dominant image, of course, but it’s effective. On either side of the stage is a post with black tattered cloth attached to it, blowing in the slight breeze. The costuming is traditional, which is actually refreshing after seeing several modern-dress versions.

The company begins this production with a funeral procession for the king, thus allowing for most of the characters to be on stage right from the start. Hamlet (Cylan Brown) is downstage center, standing over his father’s corpse, with the rest of the company behind him. Gertrude and Claudius stand united just behind him, and the crown is place on Claudius’ head. So the scene acts as funeral, wedding and coronation, very quickly and clearly establishing the current situation. It’s a wonderful stage image as well.

This goes right into Act I Scene ii, thus skipping the first scene with the Ghost, where Bernardo and Marcellus take Horatio to witness its appearance. All talk of Fortinbras and Norway is cut. When Gertrude tells Hamlet to “let thine eye look like a friend on Denmark,” she indicates Claudius, which is a nice touch. Interestingly, on Hamlet’s “customary suits of solemn black,” the Ghost stands up and exits stage right, then moves behind the mirror, overlooking the scene (the Ghost plays a prominent part in this production). Ophelia (Olivia Delgado) exits last, having a brief moment with Hamlet before his “too too solid flesh” speech. By doing so, this production establishes Ophelia's love for Hamlet very early, and then strengthens it by having her clearly not happy to receive Laertes' advice. Because the first scene was cut, Horatio’s “Where, my lord?” (in response to Hamlet saying that he thinks he sees his father) doesn’t really carry much weight or impact. Also, because that first scene is cut, we don't really know whether to believe Horatio when he tells Hamlet that he saw his father.

By Laertes and Ophelia’s reactions when Polonius (Charles M. Howell) begins his famous speech, it’s clear they’ve heard it before. And they then both mouth “For the apparel oft proclaims the man” behind his back.

I really like the way a lot of the relationships in this production are established. For example, after Hamlet speaks with the Ghost, he clearly wants to tell Horatio more, but doesn’t trust Marcellus and Bernardo. (And we know from the text that later Hamlet does tell Horatio much more in some off-stage scene.) It seems by their looks that Horatio and the others don’t hear the Ghost’s “Swear.” They put their hands on Hamlet’s sword, which leads nicely to Hamlet’s “Rest, rest, perturbed spirit.”

Before Rosencrantz and Guildenstern enter, this production gives us a moment of affection between Claudius and Gertrude. When Polonius gets partway into his speech, Claudius and Gertrude sit down, realizing this will take some time. There are some interesting variations here. Polonius has Ophelia read Hamlet’s letter, rather than reading it himself. Ophelia also says, “I did repel his letters,” as Claudius asks her directly rather than speaking to Polonius (perhaps in an effort to avoid another lengthy reply). Ophelia reacts strongly to Polonius’ “I’ll loose my daughter to him,” clearly surprised by this plan. This production creates something of a relationship between Gertrude and Ophelia, some affection, for it is to Gertrude that Ophelia looks to put a stop to this plan.

Hamlet’s crab impression in his dialogue with Polonius is delightful. His reading of “except my life” is done more to himself, coming as a sudden realization to him. And it leads to the “To be or not to be” speech (moved from Act III). Ophelia enters upstage before “undiscovered country,” thus hearing much of his speech. Ophelia looks toward the mirror when she says she has remembrances of his, so Hamlet looks to it as well. She also speaks that line loudly, as if to make Polonius and Claudius hear it. Ophelia is on her knees, reduced to tears, by the time Hamlet exits. Her love for him is, again, quite clear in this production. Later, during the play scene, she is delighted to receive the compliment, “here’s metal more attractive,” which is a nice choice. And then her “Nay, ‘tis twice two months, my lord,” is delivered with concern for Hamlet’s health and his state of mind.

It is after Claudius’ “Madness in great ones must not unwatch’d go” that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern enter. This production creates a strong bond between Hamlet and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, which is apparent from the moment that Hamlet first sees them. The three of them immediately play a game of fake swordplay, clearly something they’ve done in the past. He is truly happy to see them, which I think is wonderful, particularly because it makes later scenes with them much more serious. Hamlet is again playful with them when he learns the players are coming.

The players are all men, but the all the lines about the beard and so on are cut, and almost immediately Hamlet asks for that speech. First Player is not the oldest, most experienced player, as is usually done. First Player actually seems a bit nervous when Hamlet mentions inserting a speech, which is odd. He should be excited, because this means he and the others have work. 

In addition to some serious cuts, there is also a bit of re-ordering of scenes. This production goes right from the end of Act II (“The play’s the thing…”) to Hamlet telling Horatio of the play, and then back to Hamlet’s advice to the players. So two days become one, and all of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s lines to Claudius and Gertrude at the beginning of Act III are cut. The dumb show is also cut. By the way, Cyan Brown is absolutely excellent in the play scene. Interestingly, the player murderer gives his lines while the player king is resting his head in the player queen’s lap, hinting that at this point Hamlet thinks Gertrude may be involved in his father's murder. It’s a wonderful way of doing it. Hamlet then gets so excited that he takes the stage and pours the poison himself. Hamlet has always seemed like someone who wanted to be an actor, and in this production he actually becomes involved in the play, which works really well. On “I lack advancement,” Hamlet puts on the player’s crown.

For the closet scene, Gertrude enters, drinking, then hands the cup to Polonius before Hamlet enters. Hamlet actually draws his dagger, causing Gertrude to say: “What wilt thou do? Thou wilt not murder me?” Hamlet holds it to her throat, which is really interesting, as he’s just failed to take action with Claudius. It’s almost like he might make up for his inaction by doing a much worse action. And then of course, he does – in the killing of Polonius. There is a lot of really good stuff in this production’s take on the closet scene. When Hamlet pulls out his father’s portrait, Gertrude looks at it with affection, which is really interesting. And then later in the scene Hamlet gives his necklace with his father’s portrait to Gertrude. It’s a nice touch, and shows a strong connection between mother and son. When Claudius kisses Gertrude, she backs away, so in this production it is very clear that she believes what Hamlet has told her and is going to follow his advice.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern draw swords on Hamlet when trying to discover the location of Polonius’ body. Hamlet disarms them both, which works as a demonstration of his skill before his fight with Laertes. Of course, it does present a bit of a problem, because now Rosencrantz and Guildenstern can’t possibly think that Hamlet will trust them on their journey to England. But it makes it interesting when Hamlet commands them, “Come, for England!” This production adds a moment where Ophelia watches Hamlet depart, and it’s nice to see her a bit ragged before the full-on mad scenes.

One of the production's most unfortunate cuts, however, is her first mad scene. It’s gone completely, and so Laertes enters before we see Ophelia’s state. That’s a shame, for it’s much stronger when everyone else on stage and in the audience is aware of what has befallen Ophelia before Laertes learns. Laertes has come back out of anger regarding his father’s death, and then is struck another blow when he sees his sister. But without that first scene, the audience learns of this at the same time that Laertes does. I think Ophelia is one of the toughest roles in all of Shakespeare’s works, and it’s particularly difficult to pull off the mad scenes. It doesn’t quite work in this production, but again, that might be in part because of the cutting of the first scene. Also, when Ophelia hands out the flowers (and they are flowers in this production), she at first looks out over the audience rather than directly at the people she is addressing. It’s always more intense when she holds their stare, making them even more uncomfortable. If she looks away, it’s easier for others to keep their distance.

As I mentioned before, this production creates a strong bond between Gertrude and Ophelia, and after Ophelia exits, Gertrude rushes after her. That is a nice touch, and helps to explain perhaps how Gertrude is able to give such a vivid description of her doom later. The problem, however, is that then she is not present for Claudius’ “And where th’ offence is let the great axe fall,” a line which allows for a revealing reaction from Gertrude.

Interestingly, when Gertrude does enter to tell of Ophelia’s fate, she is holding flowers and carrying herself in a similar way to Ophelia, almost like she has taken on something of the girl’s spirit. She even wears a pale blue ribbon (a color associated with Ophelia in this production) and a flower in her hair, implying that their connection was even stronger.

There is some more re-ordering of scenes, with Hamlet telling Horatio about Rosencrantz and Guildenstern before the graveyard scene. And with the production’s many cuts, it was a surprise (and a delight) to find both gravediggers present. Much of their early dialogue is left in, including the bit about Adam having arms, and the bit about the gravedigger being the strongest of builders. Though the actor playing the main gravedigger is much too young for the part. After all, he has had the job for thirty years. The skull used in this production has the lower jaw intact. Oddly, the gravedigger exits when Hamlet talks about Yorick. (All of the lines about Alexander and Caesar are cut.)

Claudius doesn’t encourage Laertes in his anger toward Hamlet in the funeral scene, and even holds him back, which is strange. After all, if Laertes attacks and perhaps kills Hamlet here, it saves Claudius from having to be more directly involved. Also odd is that he directs the line “This grave shall have a living monument” at Hamlet.

The sword fight is done really well, with some interesting choices. In fact, right at the beginning, when Laertes says “Let me see another,” regarding the foils, Hamlet gives Laertes the sword he had chosen, exchanging his sword for that of Laertes. And the fight itself is quite good, done with sword and dagger. Another wonderful surprise is that Claudius actually cries over Gertrude’s body. He doesn’t even really try to save himself, and it seems that she was the main reason he committed his murder, not the crown.

Fortinbras is completely cut from this production, but Horatio still speaks some of the lines that in the text he says to Fortinbras. And then he actually delivers some of Fortinbras’ lines (the final lines of the play as written) before saying his own lines: “Now cracks a noble heart. Good night, sweet prince/And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.”

The cast is quite good, and in particular Cylan Brown really gives an excellent performance as Hamlet, making strong choices throughout.

One problem I do have with this production is its use of music throughout the performance. There are times when it is intrusive, and detracts from rather than adds to the production. I think they need to trust the text and the actors to carry the performance. Music is fine before the show, at intermission, and perhaps at certain key moments. But, for example, I wish it didn’t play during the “What a piece of work is a man” speech. Not that music plays at all moments. For me, the strongest moments are when the music doesn’t interfere.

The pace feels a bit rushed at times. Much is cut from the text, as this performance runs approximately an hour and fifty minutes. There is one fifteen-minute intermission, coming at the end of Act III Scene ii (so, the total length of the evening is just over two hours). This production of Hamlet, Prince Of Denmark was directed by Stephanie Coltrin. There are a few more performances of this play, so check the company's web site for the schedule.

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