Selling Out Hamlet

By Tom Nissley

After months of anticipation of a new production of “Hamlet” at Yale Rep, I came away disappointed with casting and staging choices. Hoping that Paul Giamatti (as Hamlet) would reflect the problems that Prince Harry delivers to the House of Windsor, I couldn’t escape the thought that he was more a reflection of Prince Charles -- too old for his title and for rebellious antics -- whose acting out fit the part of a young student, but whose persona never succeeded in doing so. Director (and Dean) James Bundy described in program notes having seen many Hamlets, but never the same one twice. That may be a sort of apology for how this Hamlet was unique, and it was indeed unique, but in my opinion if this might be the only production of Hamlet that an audience member has ever seen, he or she has been roughly shortchanged. Within a university setting where dozens of young students daily project a great Hamlet-like aura, including those sitting in the audience quite nearby, how is it possible to look at Giamatti on stage without making a sad comparison?

 

There are major questions one always asks of a Hamlet. 1) Did Hamlet seem to really love Ophelia -- was she ‘always’ his playmate and friend before the time of King Hamlet’s death? 2) Did Gertrude over-love Hamlet? Was she too much entwined with his life and too protective? 3) Is Horatio’s love for Hamlet, and vice versa, presented well? 4) Is the ghost more real, or vague and more imagined? (Pretty real in this production, accompanied by fireworks!) 5) How does the play within the play work?

 

And one looks for some veracity in the oft-quoted passages, how the gravedigger performs, how Polonius performs, how well Ophelia’s mad scene goes, and the fighting with Laertes in the last act. All of these dimensions worked well in small bites, and Giamatti’s enthusiastic acting affirmed his commitment to the production, but in no single instance in which Prince Hamlet was meant to relate to other characters did the stage business work! Not Hamlet with Ophelia, not Hamlet with Gertrude, not Hamlet with Horatio, not Hamlet with the players, or himself. Because even if the lines that Shakespeare wrote were accurately said, we still had a too old, and too rambunctious, method Hamlet doing his separate thing among other characters who cooperated by not relating back to him as well.

 

So among the dissociated pieces, what is there to praise? If you follow closely the two roles played by Jarlath Conroy (Cornelius and the Grave Digger) you should be happily amazed to compare them. Cornelius nods and dips like an old employee still giving lip service to diplomacy. Conroy as the Grave Digger is superb, and poor Yorick is well recalled. Gerry Bamman’s Polonius is terrific, and survives well on its own. Brooke Parks’ Ophelia is sometimes powerful, but not powerful enough to make the needed link to the Prince. Felicity Jones projects a fine and solid persona as both the player queen and Gertrude’s Lady in Waiting. Tommy Schrider’s Laertes is well done but stands apart from real connection with others on stage. Marc Kudisch was more impressive as the Ghost than as the King. The team of visiting Players did an impressive performance, including setting up their platform and drapes.

 

The fight scene, choreographed by Rick Sordelet, was outstanding.

 

Meredith Ries’ set was striking, Shakesperean, and with open structured wings that allowed for fun chases through the castle. Stephen Strawbridge’ lighting design was magnificent. Jayoung Yoon designed costumes that sometimes fit the mood and other times were distracting. It was disconcerting to have combat fatigues on so many guards and soldiers. Keri Klick’s sound design was also excellent. But if there’s a gold medal for members of the production team, it will be given to the musicians, who guided all the transitions beautifully and with powerful music written by Sarah Pickett and played by Christopher Scanlon, Michael Compitello, Bill Solomon, Brian Ellingsen, and Maura Valenti.

 

There are no seats available for any performance, and the run has been “sold out” since before the play opened. Getting to see it, if that’s at all possible, involves standing in line and begging the box office for returned tickets. So we have some evidence that bringing a well-known movie star and celebrity actor to one of America’s finest stages, and attaching a truly beloved Dean’s name to the production of a really famous play will fill the house to overflowing. Giving up so much honesty in the casting, however that happened, adds a sad bitterness to the words “sold out,” and changes their meaning.

 

Tom Nissley, for the Ridgelea Reports on Theatre.

March 29, 2013

 

Tom Nissley at the Ridgelea Institute New Canaan, CT 06840 203-322-1400 direct

 

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