note: entire contents copyright 2002 by Will Stackman
The Publick Theatre's second presentation this season, a solid and straightforward "Hamlet" suggests that this 30 something year old company is on the verge of producing truly memorable Shakespeare in coming seasons. If they fail to do so it will be due to marginal funding, catastrophe (natural or manmade), or from settling for merely doing a good job when a great one was possible. This "Hamlet", rehearsed and previewed during a heat wave on a refurbished stage and played against ambient noise which includes a major outbreak of cicadas, measures up to the best regional productions around the country, saving perhaps those at the other end of this state.
Artistic Director Diego Arciniegas, who both directs and plays the title role, has edited the text to create a fast-moving revenge tragedy which omits none of the plot or important solioquies. The dynamic of the play is changed by omitting the original opening scene on the battlements and plunging right into the court. This cut is acceptable, particularly since beginning the show at dusk doesn't allow for effective lighting. Bill Salem's Ghost in armor is truly impressive played on the embankments to either side of the audience once the sun has fully set. The opening scene, however, could be improved by placing the Prince further downstage rather than having him lurking to the side, and by having a few extras to fill out the court. Steve Barkenheimer's Claudius is commanding and effective and makes a strong beginning to the action.
Deficiencies in blocking and a minimized cast are minor problems throughout the show. Publick Theatre's verse speaking gets better each show.
Arciniegas has truly been functioning as the Master of the Verse. Unfortunately, being so central to the play, as director Diego may not have had the time to step back and get a full picture of his show. The raked area stage right was particularly underused, except as Gertrude's bed. A larger cast, of course, may have been economically unfeasible, since even unpaid apprentice spear carriers need costumes. But a few more props would help, such a staff and chain of office for Polonius, a baton for Osric as the referee, and a book or two for Hamlet himself. Sometimes less is less.
In general, the ensemble delivers sound performances and believable, if elementary, characterizations. Subtleties may emerge as the show runs; a second viewing will be required. Nancy Carroll's Gertrude, for example, has depths that barely showed. The scene between her and her son could be even more powerful. Arciniegas's Hamlet, who begins by throwing himself on the ground for "Oh that this too too sullied flesh" (at least that's what I heard) needs to pull all the facets of this tortured soul's together, at least by the end of the play, in order to present a comprehensible role. On opening night it was almost as if the role of the director, who had to plan everything, and the Prince, "born to set it right" had blurred together.
Which is a workable start for a characterization, but only that.
The fencing bout at the end was worth waiting for, and "The Mousetrap" done entirely as a shadow show was effective, though the dumbshow could have been a bit shorter. The assembled costumes were sufficient, though having essentially the same outfit on most of the men was limiting, particularly for Bern Budd as Polonious, who also needed some sort of beard. Gluing on hair in the heat can be torturous, but the play almost requires it. Budd's vocal characterization was effective, but without adequate costume and props, seemed somehow incomplete. Still, there is so much right and true about this production that minor lapses can be forgiven. Anyone who appreciates Shakespeare done well and to the point, without an imposed "concept", should plan to see this "Hamlet" some balmy night. ----Will