Saturday, May 2, 2015

"Hamlet" - Sometimes Experimentation Doesn’t Quite Work

By Judd Hollander

Director Austin Pendleton tries a novel approach with William Shakespeare’s Hamlet starring Peter Sarsgaard in the title role, now being performed at Classic Stage Company. Sadly his idea runs out of steam soon after intermission, with the rest of the play turning into a long, unforgiving slog through the classic work.

Hamlet is the Prince of Denmark, a place where all is not well. His father the King dying less than two months earlier, with his mother Queen Gertrude (Penelope Allen) having since married Claudius (Harris Yulin), his father's brother. Claudius subsequently ascending to the throne. But the dead king does not rest easy, his spirit returning with an ominous warning for his son. One which sets the Prince on vengeful course against those he believes sent his father to an early grave.

A common query about the storyline is whether Hamlet truly becomes mad after his ghostly encounter or if his sudden change in attitude, from one of brooding uneasiness to wild obsession is actually part of a scheme to uncover the truth about his father’s passing. Those people who get in the way of his mission simply becoming collateral damage.

However here Pendleton has chosen to excise the entire speech of the ghost, something which is certainly a key plot point; so instead of seeing a possible reason for Hamlet’s change of mind, one only sees the change itself, without any meaning behind it. The audience thereby forced to examine Hamlet’s alteration of attitude from the outside looking in. Indeed, it's not until one hour and fifteen minutes into the show that the issue of murder is first invoked and sometime after that until one gets an idea of Hamlet’s actual purpose.

While this forced change of perspective is an intriguing idea, it really doesn’t work, the result being that Hamlet becomes more of a curiosity rather than a tragic or somewhat sympathetic figure. Pendleton seeming to take great pains in making sure Hamlet is reduced to almost a cypher for a good part of the piece. It’s also worth noting that a speech showing Hamlet’s early self-doubts has also been edited, with the line about him feeling melancholy removed from the play.

Added to this issue is the fact that the pacing of the show is uneven to say the least, the production feeling more and more leaden as it moves forward. The latter part of act two is especially weak, due to the fact that once Hamlet’s motivations have finally been made clear, most of his later speeches to that purpose now seem tired and overdone. Among the scenes that don’t work nearly as well as they should is the early part of the graveyard scene (i.e. the Yorick speech) and a lengthy bit regarding the fate of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, (Scott Parkinson, Daniel Morgan Shelly), two of Hamlet’s friends who, while trying to do the right thing, find themselves caught up in a situation they do not understand and ultimately have no control.

Another problem here is how the character of Ophelia (Lisa Joyce) is presented. The daughter of Polonius (Stephen Spinella), counsel for the King and brother of Laertes (Glenn Fitzgerald), there’s always the question if Hamlet actually loves this somewhat fragile girl who is driven to the brink of madness by his actions, or if she’s simply a means to an end his plan of vengeance. However neither Joyce nor Pendleton allow the character to become defined enough to really care about, with the result being that her final and most pivotal scenes don’t generate all that much interest or sympathy.

All of the above aside, there are still some strong acting performances to enjoy throughout. Sarsgaard does well in showing the passion and anger in Hamlet, especially in a sequence where he takes his mother to task for marrying Claudius. Interestingly, Sarsgarrd’s characterization comes off as pretty one-dimensional until he meets the ghost, and only then do his passions begin to erupt. Allen is wonderful as Gertrude, imbuing her role with a distinct air of regalness and often playing the part on a higher level than the rest of the cast. This method causing a problem in her scenes with Yulin. While Yulin turns in a nicely low key performance, thus making the one time he gets visibly angry all the more powerful, his and Allen’s styles do not mesh well, it often feeling the two are performing in separate plays. Fortunately, Allen does work wonderfully well in her scenes with Sarsgaard, making their moments together one of the true highlights of the show.

Comically stealing every scene he’s in is Stephen Spinella as Polonius, a man who never used one word when 1,000 or more will do. When he promises to be brief while explaining to the royal couple what he is sure is the cause of Hamlet’s problems, he instead goes hilariously on and on. One can almost see the frustration in the King and Queen’s faces, along with the steam rising from their ears as they vainly urge him to get to the point. Elsewhere, Fitzgerald is strong as Laertes, a man who wants his own vengeance against Hamlet for what the latter has done to his family, while Austin Jones is good as Hamlet’s stalwart friend Hornito.

Walt Spangler’s set is an interesting choice, with a wedding cake ever present, along with a festive dining room table. The tableau offering an ironic comment on what should be a happy time and which instead turns out to be anything but. Constance Hoffman’s costumes, the entire play being done in modern dress, work well; as does the lighting by Justin Townsend.

The ultimate problem with this production of Hamlet is that it’s built on a single premise - that of putting the audience in the same boat as the rest of the cast in trying to determine whether Hamlet is or is not mad. Once that determination is made, much of what follows becomes extraneous as one waits for the rest of the story to play out. While the show boasts some very good performances, ultimately you can mark this down as a failed experiment.

Featuring: Scott Parkinson (Francisco/Rosencrantz/Player Queen/Gravedigger), Jim Broaddus (Barnardo/First Player/Player King/Captain), Austin Jones (Horatio), Daniel Morgan Shelly (Marcellus/Reynaldo/Guildenstern/Lucianus/Priest/Fortinbras), Harris Yulin (Claudius), Jim Broaddus (Voltemand), Glenn Fitzgerald (Laertes), Stephen Spinella (Polonius), Penelope Allen (Gertrude), Peter Sarsgaard (Hamlet), Lisa Joyce (Ophelia).

by William Shakespeare
Scenic Design: Walt Spangler
Costume Design: Constance Hoffman
Lighting Design: Justin Townsend
Original Music & Sound Design: Ryan Rumery/Scapesound
Wig & Hair Design: Dave Bova
Production Stage Manager: Timothy R. Semon
Assistant Sage Manager: Kristin M. Herrick
Fight Captain: Daniel Morgan Shelley
Production Supervisor: Production Core
Production Manager: Amber Mathis
General Manager: John C. Hume
Casting: Calleri Casting
Press Representative: The Publicity Office
Directed by Austin Pendleton

Classic Stage Company
136 East 13th Street
Tickets: (212) 352-3101/866-811-4111 or
Running Time: 3 Hours, 20 Minutes, one intermission

Closes: May 10, 2015

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