Much to say about Shakespheare.
I am strongly of the opinion that Shakespeare is deadly theatre, that any production of Shakespeare cannot avoid falling into the wide variety of traps that have developed historically because these plays have been so over-produced, recreated “with a twist” and otherwise beaten to death. No matter what you do, you can no longer make something that’s been rehashed endlessly by everyone from Peter Brook to Hollywood, to highschools and community theatres fresh again.
Off the Wall’s production of Hamlet, running through November 11th challenges, but does not dispel this opinion. Dale Gutzman has produced some of the most engaging Shakespeare I’ve seen (and I’ve seen more than I care to recount). Maybe it’s that Hamlet is a simpler, more accessible play than most, but I don’t think so, because this simplicity is a flaw as well. The conflict of Hamlet is laid out early on, from the first scenes we know that Hamlet is going to kill Claudius, his uncle/stepdad (played well enough by Ben George) and doesn’t like it. The fact that Hamlet spends the rest of the almost three hour long play fretting over this, randomly killing other people, and just acting stupid and crazy is a major problem. It’s also the reason that I was bored silly halfway through the second act. That drowsiness fell upon me for only a short time though, and was thoroughly dispelled by the second intermission. I remained engaged through the length of the third act, which is more than I can say about most Shakespeare.
Gutzman managed to hold my attention because he took risks with this production. Some of these risks paid off (set design and blocking) others failed completely (music and sound design). The quality of the acting was very mixed, but shone most brightly when they took chances and made choices that we nothing short of inspired. Jeremy Welter’s Hamlet and Liz Mistle‘s Ophelia managed to break us out of our comfort zones and created moments of life while many of the other actors were clearly just going through the motions.
The choices of the production weren’t fresh to Shakespeare (because nothing is) but they had the energy of being fresh to this company. Unfortunately, these choices weren’t consistent. Modernizations were sometimes in stark contrast to each other in regards to costume, props and especially choice of music. This lack of consistency didn’t matter too much though, because everything was subtle enough to not be distracting.
My favorite parts of the show: the set design and blocking. Off the Wall got very creative, using every inch of their small space to create completely new locations for every scene. The set design was austere and versatile, everything was covered with one of three elements, burgundy fabric, black paint and raw wood. Moveable stage pieces, panels and sparse furniture allowed complete transformations of the space record in scene-change time. The ingenious blocking also kept the show visually interesting. Gutzman managed to keep people moving around constantly, into every corner of the stage without seeming forced or excessive. At one point these elements merged as Hamlet crossed the stage in a series of expressionistic freeze frames and then climbed up into a strange attic-like crawlspace behind the stage, delivering his “to be or not to be” soliloquy as a distant figure thirty feet away from the audience.
Some of the acting also matched this level of creativity. Ophelia’s freak-out ran the gamut of emotions with such violent transitions and changes that I couldn’t help getting caught up in it. The final duel between Hamlet and Laertes (Karl Miller) was energetic and convincing. Ophelia’s grave scene was interesting despite the TERRIBLE pandering-to-a-deadly-audience choice to have the grave-digger sing a medley of Beatle’s hits while he worked. Welter’s performance as Hamlet reached impressive intensity even though his speech and accent lapsed at times. Laertes’ confrontation with Claudius crackled with energy and I almost thought he was going to start some pistol whipping. I wish he would have.
Other moments were completely typical, actors going-through the motions, mouthing Shakespeare’s words without thinking about what they meant. I don’t think Gutzman pushed his own boundaries at all in his choices for music, and the show suffered for it. Hamlet was a spoiled emo brat who listened to crooners and showtoons, and an unnecessary soundtrack of generic “intense” music also created distraction.
There are as many different kinds of Shakespeare audiences as there are types of productions, and many of them are deadly. This show has at least a few moments to offer each type, but lacks the consistency and focus necessary to completely satisfy anyone.
2 hours ago