As a birthday present, my favorite partner in crime treated me to Hamlet at the Gamm theatre in Pawtucket, RI.
I was excited to see the show because what’s a bardy birthday with some bard? Also, I’m always on the lookout for companies who produce Shakespeare (preferably semi-regularly, which Gamm does). Much of my audience Shakes-perience comes from years and years of being a patron of Shakespeare & Company, so it’s really good to broaden my portfolio and have a look at other companies, other styles, and other talents.
I try not to go into Shakespeare with any hopes whatsoever. I really do try and enter with a clean mind, ready to enjoy the show and without some highfalutin’ notion of should and shouldn’t. Obviously there’s an awareness of the textual and historical difficulties innate in any production, but I try not to let that hijack my experience of the performance.
Unfortunately, Gamm’s production was somewhat disappointing.
The first act was bland. They tackled the problems innate in Hamlet with strength, but not any sense of creativity. The staging was predictable, the performances on the whole nothing spectacular. There were a few exceptions: Tony Estrella, Gamm’s current Artistic
Hamlet (center) greets Roz and Guil (Left and Right respectively)
Director and the title role of the show, speaks the text like he was born to it. He was a little old for Hamlet, but that didn’t bother me overmuch once the play got rolling. Steve Kidd’s Claudius may seem boring in the first act, but just give him some time to warm up. Once he hits his soliloquy in the second act, he’ll prove that he’s no dumb king; he’s just trying to hold it together so hard that his movements are as constrained as a geisha’s. Ben Gracia and Joe Short as Rozencrantz and Guildenstern are a breathe of fresh air, and I’ve never seen the “play this pipe” speech done with more clarity. Tom Gleadow as the gravedigger should be knighted for bringing some joy to the stage, though his ghost leaves something to be desired (not due to his own performance, but rather due to a lack of directorial imagination – there was nothing done to distinguish the ghost as otherworldly or inhuman and thereby the scenes fell flat for me).
The entire player troop was also delightful – just hammy enough without completely stealing the show.
And the fight direction was absolutely stellar. All of the violence onstage was well paced, well choreographed, and well rehearsed. Mister Normand Beauregard, the Gamm’s resident fight director, has my personal stamp of approval.
With the good comes the bad, and unfortunately there was a great deal of bad. Jeanine Kane’s Gertrude was cardboard, Marc Dante Mancini’s Horatio almost incomprehensible, and Gillian Williams packs too much of a punch to play Ophelia. Due to the choice in aging Hamlet, Ophelia was also aged and, while Williams is certain to please in roles more suited to her strength, she didn’t make a believable waif.
Here’s the thing about Ophelia: Ophelia is a wisp of a girl stuck in a man’s world. She’s not a woman, she’s not someone who knows how to function on her own, and every man in her life has used and abused her. Her father, her brother, Hamlet himself… all of these men treat Ophelia like a pawn in their greater game. Ophelia runs mad because these men are all taken away from her. Without them, she simply cannot function in the high-pressure environment of the court. If you have an Ophelia who is able to stand on her own, there’s no reason why she would run mad when her father dies and Hamlet is sent away. She’d just pick herself up by the bootstraps and move on (and that, my friends, is the difference between Ophelia and Rosalind). So Williams, while talented, really shouldn’t be playing this role. And casting her robbed the play of credence.
Hamlet with Polonius
There’s been a trend lately of modernizing Hamlet, but the problem with doing that is such: there’s only so modern Hamlet can be. Hamlet requires a world with aristocracy, a world where swords are still used (you cannot do anything else with that duel, it HAS to be a swordfight), and a world where women are afforded a societal position lower than men. Most directors solve this by staging Hamlet in a World War II era, about the most modern Hamlet will go. As such, this production’s choice to do just that wasn’t at all bold or new. In fact, it’s becoming something quite hackneyed.
The production made one other bold choice which, again, wasn’t new or different… simply upsetting.
So Hamlet is a story about the foibles of leadership and how horrible power can be. There is, however, hope in this: Horatio, the one who watches, the one who is there through everything, is able to carry on the story. He tells the tale of the Danish court to Fortinbras after the Norwegians claim the Danish throne. There is some assurance that these awful events, once come to pass, will never happen in the same way again.
That is, unless you disregard the textual clues, completely dump upon the greater meaning of Hamlet, and use the last moment onstage to shoot Horatio.
Okay, directors, listen up. Rule number one about Hamlet: you don’t shoot Horatio. Period. Doing so completely alters the meaning of Shakespeare’s text, completely jars the audience into a hopeless slump, and otherwise privileges your “GREAT CONCEPT” over the bard’s work. Yes, I understand that you’re trying to do something “new and innovative” with a text that is done to death in the popular culture, but shooting Horatio is not new nor is it innovative. Oskar Eustis did it in Shakespeare in the Park’s 2008 Hamlet and I didn’t like it then either. “Bid the soldiers shoot” is Fortinbras’ instruction to begin the gun salute funeral festivities, not license to impose your ending on a literary classic.
I could drone on about why this choice is wrong, but unless you’re looking for a dramaturge for your modern-dress production of Hamlet you’re probably not interested in reading it. If you ARE looking for a dramaturge for your modern-dress production of Hamlet, shoot me an e-mail and I’m your girl. If you’re planning a modern-dress production of Hamlet, for god’s sake find yourself a dramaturge so that you don’t make this mistake (…looking at the production credits, they did have a dramaturge for this production… I can’t imagine what she was thinking to allow this to happen. Fie and shame upon her!).
What did Horatio ever do to you?
Hamlet’s run has been extended through December 18th. For more information, head on over to their website.