“Thank God for Hugh Kennedy.”
So said my friend at one of the two intermissions for the Jungle Theater’s current production of Shakespeare’s tragedy Hamlet, and I have to agree. Of the things that work in Hamlet, Kennedy as Prince Hamlet is involved in nearly all of them. When Hamlet disappears from the action for a chunk of act three, you feel his absence. I didn’t realize quite how much until Kennedy reappeared and I could feel myself relax again.
During one of the intermissions, I said to my friend, “I kind of feel sorry for Hugh.”
“Oh don’t worry, I’ll be fine.”
“Not you. Hugh. You’ve sat through Shakespeare productions before, I’m not worried about you.”
(Need a plot synopsis? I wrote one here.)
Having seen now, quite by accident, three Hamlets plus one Fringe Festival riff on Hamlet in the space of a little more than a year, I’ve seen how (deceptively) simple and powerful the play can be when you get it right, and how tricky it can get when you think you know better than Shakespeare (or your audience). Sometimes you may have something, other times…
So the high bar to clear and the low bar to clear had been set in terms of my expectations. No one regrets more than I that I need to report this one falls somewhere squarely in the middle.
Once again, not the fault of the actor playing Hamlet. In every instance where I’ve seen the play recently, if you give that role to a young actor, he is almost literally going to break his back trying to give you the best, most well-researched, fully rounded human Hamlet you could ask for. They will leave everything out on that stage, if you give them half a chance. The production is either going to work with them, or against them. Kennedy and this Hamlet are no different.
Jungle Theater artistic director Bain Boehlke once more, as he so often does (and often successfully), served as both director and set designer on this production. Here, however, it feels like the tail is wagging the dog. The production feels as if it has been conceived and designed, but not directed. This is a hyper-modern, high tech, multimedia Hamlet. Thanks to this production, I know that Queen Gertrude has an iPad, Polonius uses Skype, Ophelia likes gin and tonics, Claudius is obsessed with his cell phone, Laertes will attempt to hold conversations and work on his laptop computer at the same time, Hamlet has a blog or a Twitter account, and, honestly, I don’t care.
Why would you choose a play this good and assemble a cast this gifted (Kennedy, Bradley Greenwald as Claudius, Michelle Barber as Gertrude, the almost relentlessly entertaining Gary Briggle as Polonius, Paul Rutledge as Horatio, just for starters) and then constantly get in their way? The sets are lovely, but the scene shifts and the never-ending stage business are devouring the story. (Claudius will be right with you, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, but first he needs to load up at the breakfast buffet.) Numerous scenes are crammed with extras who mumble or audibly carry on conversations that are warring with the actual dialogue of the lead characters. You know, the ones with the lines Shakespeare wrote, the story we came to the theater to hear. The technology is clever and shiny but completely unnecessary. We’re listening to Hamlet, the words do the heavy lifting, we get what he’s driving at in the soliloquy. He doesn’t need a PowerPoint presentation behind him on a large screen.
The supertitles over the stage indicating time and location before each scene were the most intrusive technological element, and the least needed. There are graves, I think I get we’re in a graveyard. These are royal personages, I think I get that we’re somewhere in the palace—I don’t need to know precisely where. There’s an enormous crucifix looming over your actor, I think I get that we’re in a chapel. It was never more obvious that the supertitles weren’t needed than during certain stretches of the play when the scenes were too short and the action too fast to fly the screen in and out on which to project the titles. What do you know? I’m not at all confused about where I am or what’s going on. Imagine that. The script and the actors set the time and place just fine. The audience doesn’t need the additional help. They’re not stupid.
I’m not a purist. I don’t need pantaloons and swords and candlelight. In fact, Matthew J. LeFebvre’s modern dress costumes all look great and work quite well across the whole ensemble. Raze the sets, ditch the gadgets and just let the actors say the words. Please. I’m begging you. (Also, 9/11 video footage? During the play-within-a-play/Murder of Gonzago sequence? Really?)
The one place a little technology goes a long way is with the ghost of Hamlet’s father (Phil Kilbourne). Again, fantastic creepy pseudo-military costume from LeFebvre. Add in Barry Browning’s evocative lighting which constantly keeps Kilbourne’s body fully lit but his face in shadow. Now layer on the distortion of his voice in Sean Healey’s sound design and you’ve got one great supernatural entity.
It’s the little moments of humanity that manage to squeak through that keep this Hamlet from collapsing under the weight of its own overproduction. When that Ghost reappears to Hamlet as the son is berating his mother, and Hamlet can see the spirit of his father but his mother can’t, it packs a real emotional punch. Kennedy’s Hamlet almost howls and recoils as his father appears, suddenly a frightened child again. When the ghost tells Hamlet to address his mother, because she is, understandably, freaking out because her son is seeing things, Hamlet’s tiny voice of a son chastised by his father is heartbreaking.
Then there’s the goofy, playful way that Hamlet duels with Laertes (Doug Scholz-Carlson). Kudos to Peter Moore for managing some very entertaining fight choreography on that tiny stage. There’s also the genuine affection and trust between Hamlet and Horatio, as well as the awkward dissolving friendship of Hamlet with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (Brad Kastendick and Peter Middlecamp).
A moment of genuine emotion that made me long for more was when a grieving Hamlet faces off with Laertes at the grave of Ophelia. “I loved Ophelia!” he cried out. And when Kennedy delivered that line, I believed him. But it made me wonder where the relationship between Hamlet and Ophelia got to during the time she was actually alive. Poor Ophelia (Erin Mae Johnson), we don’t really get a chance to appreciate her until after she’s gone nuts (and by that time Hamlet’s already in exile).
A tip of the hat to both Kennedy and Briggle (and Boehlke’s direction) for how they handle the numerous soliloquies and audience asides. This element of the production works exceedingly well. Briggle gets the full comic mileage out of Polonius addressing the audience. (Plus, Briggle and Kennedy are wonderful comic foils for each other in the scenes they share.) Kennedy got a wide range of emotion going in Hamlet’s signature speeches as well, and connected with the audience besides. “I have heard that guilty creatures, sitting at a play…” A pause, a shift in his face, a tiny hand gesture, he’s looking right at us, and we’re reminded that we’re sitting in a theater, watching him onstage. And we laugh. Kennedy’s got us on his side. It’s a ballsy move, but it pays off big.
Human beings, relating in real time to one another onstage, that’s really all I ever ask of a theater outing. It’s what makes live theater so unique and precious. If the characters let their gadgets distract them and get in their way, if they can’t be bothered to care about the person in front of them, then why should I? A little less production, a little more play. Please?
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