Monday, April 19, 2010

ASF: "Hamlet"

The Alabama Shakespeare Festival is marketing this year's repertory as "A Season of Intrigue", and with the opening this weekend of "Hamlet", they are off to a good start. -- One of the staples of William Shakespeare's canon, the play abounds in intrigue both public and personal that, under Geoffrey Sherman's capable direction, makes this English Renaissance play accessible for contemporary audiences.

Chief among the ASF production's many qualities are its clarity and directness. Although some purists might complain of cutting it in principle, careful editing of the long script has honed the dense material into a two-hour and forty minute presentation that moves the action forward so that audiences are engaged in every moment -- a spare production that retains the essentials and focuses on the contradictions and complexities of human nature and of people's uncertain and unpredictable behavior.

As composer James Conely's military trumpets echo from around the house and soldiers are revealed on the parapet of Peter Hicks's grey framework castle, they are visited by the Ghost of the recently dead King, and it becomes increasingly clear that "something is rotten in the state of Denmark", setting up the intrigues that follow.

A revenge play similar to others of the Elizabethan & Jacobean periods sets the young Prince Hamlet [Nathan Hosner], along with his best friend and confidant Horatio [Matt D'Amico] the task of avenging his father's "most foul...murder" at the hands of his uncle Claudius [Anthony Cochrane], who has usurped both the throne and the widowed Queen Gertrude [Greta Lambert], whom he married right after the funeral of his brother, thus securing for himself the powers of state.

Obvious from his first appearance on stage that Hamlet despises his uncle, and coupled with the disturbing ghostly apparition's charge for revenge and Hamlet's resulting "antic disposition" [whether feigned or actual madness] and Polonius's [Rodney Clark] determined belief that Hamlet suffers from lovesickness for his daughter Ophelia [Kelley Curran], a number of intrigues are set in motion: secrecy, spying, eavesdropping, and prospects of iminent war between Denmark and Norway make complexity and confusion interfere with Hamlet's fulfilling his father's command while sustaining our interest.

Much attention has been paid to respecting Shakespeare's words in this "Hamlet". Without fail, the language is spoken by this company of actors with a clarity of diction that is rare, and with an comfort that makes the Bard's poetry credible in their mouths. When we hear the words clearly, the story and the characters [no matter how complex] deserve our attention and garner our respect. That being said, there are a couple of jarring notes in the sounds of voices: Mr. Cochrane's British accent is at odds with the American accents of the rest of the cast, and giving the Gravedigger [Paul Hopper] a Southern accent gets a couple of laughs but draws attention away from the content of the lines.

Performances in the featured roles are consistently first-rate, and Sherman grants to each his or her moment(s) to dominate the proceedings. As Rosencrantz and Guildenstern -- Hamlet's university friends, and Claudius's spies -- Jordan Coughtry and Michael Pesoli have a depth that isn't often seen; their nervousness and anxiety at being caught out by Hamlet in their deception are credibly humorous.

Mr. Clark's Polonius, a dignified and often bewildered chancellor, gives a solid display of advice to his son Laertes [Matthew Baldiga], and is continually caught off-guard by the intrigues of Hamlet and other members of the royal family. Mr. Cochrane and Ms. Lambert as the king and queen, in love at the beginning of the play, become more distant from each other as he is caught up in preserving his authority and she faces the truth of their relationship; his attempt at prayer and acceptance of his inability to repent of murdering his brother shows a humanly conflicted individual, and her account of Ophelia's death is a model of controlled passion and grief.

As the obedient daughter Ophelia, Ms. Curran displays her reluctance to be used as a pawn to entrap Hamlet & her real affection for him is crushed by his strange behavior; her later mad scenes are magical theatre moments in this show. Ricardo Vazquez delivers the First Player's speech in preparation of the play that will "catch the conscience of the king" in effectively naturalistic ways that reinforce Hamlet's advice to the players on acting styles.

When Laertes returns to avenge the death of Polonius, Mr. Baldiga burns with a fire that wants to burst out in contrast to Hamlet's indecisive behavior, and prepares us for their climactic fight. -- The action of the play builds so much to this fight, that one expects an extraordinary display of swordsmanship, a quickness full of risk and danger, one that makes us gasp in fear and admiration. Unfortunately, the fight in this production has none of those elements. Rather, it is slow, with moves that are all too clearly plotted out, so the tension just simply isn't there.

Nonetheless, most of our attention has been on Hamlet all the while, and Mr. Hosner gives a performance that is detailed and complex. As his Hamlet is effected by the cumulative events, and the opposition to his revenge [not the least is his own lack of action] builds from scene to scene, he fluctuates from anger to bewilderment to aggressiveness to irony to devious tactics to introspection, and takes us on this internal journey with him. Hosner's ability to speak the verse and communicate its various & simultaneous poetic meanings shows a master actor achieving a thoroughly believable character with all his contradictions. His delivery of the famous soliloquies -- "To be or not to be...", "Oh what a rogue and peasant slave am I...", among them -- are among the best renditions one can expect.

And his final scene with Horatio -- the ever-patient and supportive friend in the person of Mr. D'Amico here demonstrating the damage done by all the intrigues and his quiet acceptance of the death of a friend whose tale he has to tell the world -- is a painful reminder that greed and self-interest produce wounds that do not heal easily.