THEATER | Minnesota Shakes some action in Denmark with an uneven “Hamlet”

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Minnesota Shakespeare Company’s current production of Hamlet has had more mishaps than the traditionally cursed Shakespearean tragedy Macbeth. In fact, the lead actor literally broke his leg rehearsing the climactic swordplay just weeks before the show was originally supposed to open, back in January. (Needless to say, he’s heard all the jokes you just thought of.)

In addition to the postponement for six months due to broken bones, they’ve been hit with food poisoning, chest pains, panic attacks, three automobile accidents, and actors being lured away by better paying offers. Of the original cast, only five managed to hang on to make it to this past weekend’s opening. The latest casualty was the actor playing Polonius, ordered by a doctor to heed those chest pains and drop out of the production for the good of his health. Thus, a last minute Polonius replacement is still on book, carrying highlighted script pages around with him, referring to them as needed. I found myself thinking, “Well, at least his character gets killed off halfway through the proceedings, and he’ll be able to relax.”

hamlet, presented through june 13 at the lowry lab theater. for tickets ($15) and information, see minnesotashakes.blogspot.com

(It’s gonna be a long review, folks. It’s Hamlet. Short version, give the show a look. If you’re in the mood for Shakespeare, this one often delivers some good moments.)

Off the top of my head, I can think of three productions of Hamlet I’ve seen prior to this. I believe I’ve missed twice as many as I’ve caught. It seems people can’t help themselves. They simply must keep tackling this script. For a young male actor, Hamlet is a theatrical Mount Everest. If someone asks you to do the role, you don’t hesitate, you say yes. You do it because it’s there. Directors do it when they meet that actor they feel they can hand it to, or if they feel they have a unique take on the story. You don’t really need a good reason to do Hamlet so much as you need a really good excuse not to do it. It’s got some of the most well-known, and beautiful, speeches in the English language—both a daunting and extremely tempting prospect.

But it’s not just about the words. Hamlet only works as a tragedy if the characters are truly people. That’s the really big hurdle you have to clear. Sometimes this production, under Mikel Clifford’s direction, clears that hurdle, and sometimes it doesn’t.

The best moments here involve watching one family devour another. Hamlet’s family is fractured. Hamlet (Nick James) mourns his dead father, the king of Denmark (Bill Gorman), repulsed by the hasty remarriage of his mother Gertrude (Sara Olson) to the king’s brother Claudius (Robert Larsen), who assumes the throne as the country’s new ruler. When royal families start to unravel, they frequently take regular people down with them. Here, each member of a non-royal family gets picked off one by one—rambling father Polonius (Brian P. Joyce), romantic daughter Ophelia (Adelin Phelps), and vengeful son Laertes (William Holmes). Their love for, loyalty and proximity to Hamlet, Gertrude and Claudius always get them in the wrong place at the wrong time. The smart moves in this production all involve shaping the script to focus on those two families. The missteps are often associated with straying away from the core group of characters.

The three emotional high points key on parents and children. When Hamlet comes across a distraught Claudius praying for forgiveness, and contemplates revenging his father’s murder, both James and Larsen have some of their best moments. Later when Hamlet confronts his mother Gertrude about her betrayal, blood gets spilled, and dad’s ghost shows up for a family reunion, Olson lets loose with some of her best acting of the evening. And early on, when Laertes is leaving his father and sister in order to head back to school, the seeds were planted that made me dread what this nice family had to look forward to over the course of the story. Most Hamlet productions get Laertes wrong, but I didn’t realize how until I saw this production get it right. Holmes does a fine job of making Laertes more than just a hothead. He’s a noble nice guy who loves his sister and his dad, and is understandably distraught, and out for blood, when they are taken from him. You really feel for the guy. Though he can be led astray, he ultimately does the right thing, revealing villainy and both asking for, and offering, forgiveness while he still has time. The production and the performance uncovered something new in a play I thought I’d already heard everything from, and that’s no small feat.

The problem here is getting through the story. My first little shiver of fear came when I entered the theater and saw live musicians in period garb. The memory came back of the live music which needlessly slowed transitions and was often at odds with the mood of the play as part of the last Minnesota Shakes production I attended, Good Boys. While the violin and electronic harpsichord certainly had that Renaissance Festival period sound, the music once again covered and elongated unnecessary blackouts and transitions, and its relentless perkiness ran smack up against the production’s otherwise dramatic and contemplative mood.

While we’re on the subject of pacing and transitions, some of the work along those lines was truly baffling. The audience was often left with the feeling that Hamlet was largely a play about moving a bench around the stage. I understand the need for actors to have a place to sit. But why exactly did this piece of furniture need to keep coming and going with such mind-numbing, pace-killing frequency when the set not only had a raised floor actors could perch on the front of, and a small flight of stairs leading to a platform in another corner, but also a bench built into the set that was always present and rarely used? Add to that the sight of more than one corpse rising and walking off during a scene shift, when they could have easily and swiftly been carried. I also imagine a moment during tech when someone must have said, “Don’t forget to set Yorick’s skull downstage center before the lights come up.”

Most bewildering of all was the disposition of props during a scene I earlier tagged as a high point. When Claudius comes out to pray, he sets his dagger and his crown aside. Claudius’s crown spent a fair amount of the play appearing and disappearing, leaving the audience with the impression that perhaps it didn’t really cling to his head well enough to be trusted for long scenes. But once crown and dagger are set aside, Hamlet comes upon Claudius, appears to pick up the dagger, and makes to kill Claudius with it. Then Hamlet changes his mind and takes the dagger with him, using it minutes later to kill someone else. Claudius not only doesn’t notice his close call, he finishes his attempt at prayer and wanders off. He wanders off, not remembering his dagger (which is now missing) or his crown (that he killed his own brother to obtain). Now, living in the palace, I’m sure monarchs leave their crowns around from time to time like dirty socks for the servants to pick up and return to them, but…c’mon, really? And wouldn’t the realization that his stolen dagger was used in a murder ratchet up the urgency for the cover-up that much more? Weird forgetfulness and missed opportunities.

It’s a pretty lean Hamlet, clocking in with intermission at about two hours 45 minutes, but it could have been leaner. The transitions, even without all of Shakespeare’s built-in padding and original structure, could have flowed directly from one scene into the next all the time (sans music and blackouts) and built better momentum for the story. And, to be honest, almost none of Shakespeare’s 400-year-old jokes were working. Often the production would have the characters laugh at things, as if to cue the audience, “See? Elizabethan humor? Ha ha! Get it?” This strategy almost never worked. Plus, things like the vaudeville routine between the gravediggers were just painfully unfunny, and felt like they lasted for eons. This really wasn’t the fault of the actors—it’s the material. The audience realizes someone we have come to know and care about is dead and about to be buried, even if Hamlet doesn’t, so his extended banter with one of the gravediggers comes off as either stalling the story, insensitivity on the part of the character, or both. Let’s get to the burial confrontation already.

And I know one is almost sacredly bound to do the “Alas poor Yorick” speech—what’s Hamlet if he’s not holding a skull in a production photo? But it’s not like we were hurting for well-known soliloquies elsewhere in the production. We wouldn’t have missed poor Yorick. Later, the pre-swordfight hat humor with an obsequious servant we’ve never met before? Also painfully unfunny. Also not for lack of the actors trying. I could have lived without it. Elsewhere, the director has been bold in cutting material—such as (wisely) lopping off Fortinbras’s epilogue, and just ending the play after Horatio’s “Good night, sweet prince.” Sure, I missed the phrase “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead,” but that’s only because I like Tom Stoppard. I frequently wished the director had kept out those trimming shears and gotten rid of the lame comedy bits as well. The only humor that landed for the audience was the humor grounded in character and situation, such as Hamlet taunting everyone over where he hid one of the play’s many corpses. This production is best when it’s about the drama and the characters caught up in it all. Humor in this case often isn’t balancing the evening, but distracting from it.

Also distracting: the creation of a character named Margaret, some kind of all-purpose servant/lady-in-waiting. Again, not the actress’s fault. This was a creation for the production, but it wasn’t necessary, so the addition to the cast of characters baffles me. She first appeared standing with Polonius and family, so I thought she might be “Mrs. Polonius” or some other of the Poloni. The other characters can introduce themselves and walk around the palace by themselves, they don’t need help. And yet when Gertrude feels she’s being threatened and calls for help…no Margaret, even though we just saw her at the top of the scene. Was Margaret having a smoke break out on the ramparts? Margaret also gets inserted into the final bloodbath and the staging frequently has her blocking our view of Queen Gertrude. I get that the servants are pretty much the only ones left standing at the end if everyone else gets taken out, but you know, how about letting Horatio have that moment—like Shakespeare did? The awkward insertions into scenes where she wasn’t needed, coupled with the lack of follow-through in other instances, made dear Margaret another item I could do without.

The costumes were also bewildering and it took me a while before I realized why they just felt “off” to me. They all looked like they’d just come off the rack, as if they hadn’t been lived in at all, bright colors and sharp lines straight from a kid’s book of fairy tales. While I appreciated that most of them didn’t look ratty or threadbare, there’s a happy medium where the actors also don’t look like they’re all playing dress-up. It’s a hard balance to strike, but it is possible. Also, some costume choices were strangely literal. From the start, Ophelia was decked out in swaths of green fabric, only to have her father later warn her, saying “You are a green girl.” Well, yes, but that’s not the kind of green Shakespeare was implying. Plus, unintentional humor alert—nearly all the men wore these overly long belts which acted more like sashes around their waists. The excess part of the belt, however, would hang down, dangling between the actor’s legs. So we’re reading a commentary on either ample endowment or impotence that I’m not sure is supposed to be there.

Another unintentional provoker of giggles was the live action fanfare generated by the electronic keyboard. Say what you will about the violin/harpsichord duo, they at least sounded like real instruments. The fake electronic trumpet flourishes were hilarious in a way that was clearly not intended.

All of which is kind of a shame, because there’s a lot of good acting moments among the clutter here. The extra six months that broken leg afforded him with the script were well-spent by Nick James. His Hamlet, rather than savoring each and every syllable of the epic volume of verse he’s saddled with, speaks those words quite naturally, as if it were standard speech. So this production isn’t doesn’t make Hamlet first and best, with everyone else being merely supporting players. It’s a real ensemble. The audience gets to know all the key players as relative equals. 

It’s good to have Sara Olson back on stage, as Gertrude. Robert Larsen shines as the treacherous (but still very human) Claudius. I could have done with less “putting on a good face for the courtiers” personality and more down and dirty “concerned parents”/”besotted newlyweds” from the king and queen, because when the masks are down, they do their best work.

William Holmes’ Laertes deserves another nod for his good work (and that sword fight with Hamlet at the end is intimidating and full of the smell of danger in that tiny black box space). Even with script in hand, Brian P. Joyce acquits himself well as Polonius. Though both of them could have been fleshed out a bit better as human beings, Andrew Lamp as Hamlet’s best friend Horatio and Adelin Phelps as Hamlet’s ill-fated object of love Ophelia both provide able support. The double casting of Bill Gorman as both the ghost of the dead king, and the head player in the visiting acting troupe was a nice touch, even if it wasn’t fully exploited by the production. Finally, Nathan Tylutki got so many supporting roles, and costume changes, thrown his way, he should get a little love, too.

Perhaps the company was so traumatized by the multiple hits of bad luck that the production never really got a chance to get all the pistons firing at once. There’s a core of a good production of Hamlet here. It’s still worth a trip to St. Paul to hear this text from these actors. One just gets the nagging feeling it could have been so much more, given half a chance.

One thought on “THEATER | Minnesota Shakes some action in Denmark with an uneven “Hamlet”

  1. Pingback: THEATER REVIEW | Theatre Unbound serves up an all-female “Hamlet” | Twin Cities Daily Planet

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