Monday, June 2, 2008

Elsinore by Moonlight

Random thoughts about the Hamlet in the Park:

Michael Stuhlbarg. Probably the most manic Hamlet I've ever seen, which is not a bad thing at all. It really makes "Now I am alone" a potent moment when, for the last 20 minutes, you've been watching a guy bounce around the stage like a little kid who just had one brownie too many, a big smile on his face, saying anything that comes into his head; and then when he's alone that mask drops to the ground along with his father's coat. That's the brilliance of this performance: you can actually see the words coming into Hamlet's head. Stuhlbarg isn't reciting -- he's thinking out loud, in that high-pitched voice of his that switches back and forth between fiddle and violin, now grating and edgy, now lyrical and sweet. During intermission, my friend said: "I thought it was Joaquin Phoenix until he opened his mouth and I could actually hear him."

Hamlet and Hamlet. Running time with intermission: 3 hours and 15 minutes. Cuts I noticed in the script: no Second Gravedigger; no "Our ship got attacked by pirates;" and (oddly) the moment just before "To be or not to be" that contains Polonius' set up ("With pious action we do sugar o'er/The devil himself") and Claudius’ response ("How smart a lash that speech doth give my conscience!") (Disclaimer: I might have totally missed it because I couldn't take my eyes off Lauren Ambrose, and was much more interested in her than in anything Claudius had to say.) Kudos to director Oskar Eustis for creating that rarity of Public Theatre evenings, one in which all 20 actors are not in 20 different plays. Double kudos for not having an Interpretation into which the text must be shoe-horned. (Which makes the final moment a powerful kick in the teeth.) On the "Did Gertrude know anything beforehand?" debate, the verdict is out (thanks for nothing, Margaret Colin). On the "Did Hamlet sleep with Ophelia?" debate, hell to the yes (thanks for everything, Lauren Ambrose). [Sidebar story: when John Barrymore was asked "Did Hamlet ever sleep with Ophelia?" back in the day, he replied: "Only in the Chicago company."] And on the mad/sane debate, this Hamlet is always mad with a purpose. Does he ever really lose it? Yes, with Ophelia -- and it breaks your heart.

The Meh. Andre Braugher and Margaret Colin just didn't do it for me as Claudius and Gertrude. Braugher was likable but bland; his soul-searching monologue was more like a rant, going up and out instead of down and in. He had an odd "Whoo hoo!" moment when the treaty with Fortinbras was announced -- it was like a Yankees fan watching Rodriguez hit a home run -- and if memory serves me right, his whirling of Colin in a victory hug was their only passionate moment. After which Colin made a point of straightening her skirt, which got a laugh, but epitomized the Nancy Reagan vibe in her character. And that cool public distance sure didn't help her when she got to the "Ophelia is drowned" speech. I have to say, if she was actually using her performance to suggest possible reasons why Gertrude would marry her brother-in-law so quickly, then I missed it entirely. Overall, I didn't get any chemistry between the two of them, and that's the one thing these two characters need.

Lauren Ambrose. An alabaster acting god. The “Watch every emotion register on my face” style of acting which, in Claire Danes, comes off as affected and technical, always feels like the real thing with Ambrose. She hurts so much you just wanna hug her, and then sneak a look at her face to see how she’s taking the hug. How good is she? If there’s a god in heaven, she will get to play Hamlet in the next 10 years. And it will be talked about for the next 50.

Ophelia. The hardest thing for an actress to do as Ophelia isn’t the mad scene –- it’s the stupid “O what a noble mind is here o’erthrown!” monologue after the Nunnery scene. The more she gets emotional about Hamlet telling her to get to a nunnery, the bigger the leap to channel that emotion into a speech that says “He coulda been a contender” instead of “Why are you DOING this to me?” [Just the existence of this speech after that scene is a window into (a) how Shakespeare’s characters constantly surprise you, (b) how in Shakespeare rhetoric always takes precedence over everything, and (c) how Shakespeare’s boy actors were expected to play their female parts.] Even in the best of productions, this speech is a pothole, which means the only way to get past it is to hit the gas and try to convince the audience (and yourself) that Hamlet isn’t really like this, honest, and it’s all my stupid fault because I listened to my father. It’s the acting equivalent of an Immelman Turn, and Ambrose comes the closest I’ve ever seen to pulling it off.

Sam Waterston and Jay O Sanders. The anchors. Waterston makes Polonius proud and blind and helpless. There's a moment after the nunnery scene where Ophelia reaches up to him as he stands on the scaffolding, reaching up as if to beg him to come down and take her in his arms, and the look on Waterston's face is shattering. (It's a visual that Ambrose echoes in the mad scene; nice touch.) As for Sanders, there are probably people in the audience who will think that the Ghost, the Gravedigger and the Player King are played by three different actors. Praise doesn't get any higher than that.

Fresh Eyes and Ears. I went with a friend who had never seen a production of Hamlet before. She gasped when Polonius died; had a hard time remembering who Claudius was because (Hamlet trivia) he’s never once called by his actual name in the course of the play; got a little confused about what happened to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (because the pirate ship scene was cut); and loved every minute of it, not the least because all the catch phrases and famous lines that she knew as “Hamlet quotes” were spoken as part of the play itself, so she could hear them literally for the first time. It’s not true that she turned to me after Hamlet’s “The rest is silence” and said: “He dies?!?" But at the actual end of the production she did turn to me and say, "Whoa -- that’s not in the script, is it?” “Hell no,” I said, “but it’s great, isn’t it?” “God, yeah,” she said, “what a kick in the teeth.” So, uh, stay to the end, people.

And yes, okay? I do hang out with people who have never seen Hamlet before.

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