Theatre Mirror Reviews - "Hamlet"

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"What Happened in Boston, Willie"

Reviews of Current Productions

note: entire contents copyright 1999 by Larry Stark


"Hamlet"

by William Shakespeare
Directed by Todd Olson

Set Design by Peter Colao
Lighting Design by Mara A. Fishman
Fight Choreography by Michael Christian Huftile
Stage Manager Jenean Smith

Hamlet.............................Tommy Day Carey
Claudius.....................................Mike Farrell
Gertrude...........................Bonnie Lee Whang
Polonius....................................John Devaney
Ophelia........................Carolyn Roberts Berry
Laertes..............................Juan Luis Acevedo
Horatio........................Richard P. Engermann
Rosencrantz....................................Jo Barrick
Guildenstern...................Andrea Lynn Walker
Osric..........................................Denise Dean
Bernardo/Fortinbras...........Raymond Schmoll
Player King/Clown #1...............Anne Gottlieb
Player/Clown #2..............Bethany E. Colburn
Reynaldo.................................Forrest Walter
Lucianus/Voltimand.............Helen McElwain
Marcellus.............................Augustus Kelley
Priest/Ambassador......................Marc Miller
Player Queen/Captain..............Barbara Allen
Player/Sailor..........................Danielle DiDio
Player/Sailor........................Cheryl Finlayson
Player/Messenger................Shannon Keating
Player/Servant........................Nairi Kushigan
Player/Lord.................................Julie Lydon


If you know “Hamlet” very well, then the new production that Todd Olson has fashioned for the Boston Theatre Works will seem a fascinating interplay between all the shifting new styles and approaches and elements of staging techniques, and the basic, familiar text shining up through them all. However anyone unfamiliar with the play might prefer to rent the Olivier film and see it once or twice before going. There are moments of excellent acting here, and flashes of inspired, original directorial insight --- but it is much less a “Hamlet” than a Hamlet frappe.

I am tempted to quip “I say it’s Serban, and I say the hell with it” but that’s unfair. Though the physical, abstract approach is the same, Olson’s ideas and insights are his own and succeed or fail on their own. For instance, all of Hamlet’s speeches when alone on stage are delivered under a single glaring lamp, and when it’s switched on and off the area lights crash into total darkness and then crash back up again, while Hamlet delivers these speeches into a mike-stand, often in the style of a stand-up comic working a room. This underscoring the idea of soliloquy is effective --- though when the dying Hamlet must float over to the side of the stage to pull on his in-one spot merely to utter his last words “The rest is silence” the gimmick wags the dog and gets less awe than snickers.

The play opens in severe abstraction. King Claudius, Prince Hamlet, and Queen Gertrude deliver public speeches into a lectern mike for an audience that is a phalanx of stylized automata applauding on cue like Congressmen at a State of The Union address. Then Laertes and his sister Ophelia, their hands joined, say their lines while executing a prancing dance, one following behind mirroring every stride.

Luckily these self-conscious abstractions and objectifications become intermittent and perfunctory as the play unfolds, and something like real dialog between people peeks through the stylizations. But when Hamlet asks the newly-arrived player to “Say on: come to Hecuba” the actress (she is an uncredited chorister*, wearing Hollywood high-heeled booties and silver chain-mail tights with matching bolero flack-jacket; all the chorus are in modern motley) launches into the speech with such intense concentration and melodiously impassioned sincerity that this supposed spate of “play-acting” makes all that comes before or after seem like clever games by comparison.

But let’s have more matter, less art. The actors, when left to their own devices, are forcefully, freshly human. John Devaney as Polonius, Mike Farrell as Claudius and Bonnie Lee Whang as Gertrude all balance the formal dignity of the court with human reactions to their plottings. Carolyn Roberts Berry and Juan Luis Acevedo as Ophelia and Laertes capture the more emotional extremes of their younger roles. Berry in particular, furiously scissoring her t-shirt into rags she calls flowers in Ophelia’s mad scene is especially moving The foil-work choreographed by Michael Christian Huftile for Hamlet and Laertes has the quick, spontaneous excitement of a genuine contest.

And Hamlet is Tommy Day Carey, in a micro-goatee, wearing his shifting emotional states and reactions openly, honestly, and youthfully. His approach to those introspective soliloquies is fresh and direct, his conversations are forcefully involved, his character continually evolving. His performance represents the triumph of the text over all attempts to “illustrate” it.

The chorus of fourteen, several of whom step into named roles from time to time, serve sometimes as dancers, sometimes as props, sometimes as scene-swellers or reacting audience to public and even occasionally to private scenes. At play’s end, when Young Fortinbras commands his forces to “take up the bodies” it’s not only those of the slaughtered royalty but of the witnessing chorus, dead as well, that the stage must be cleared. After the hectic three-plus hours of excitement, this comes as a puzzlingly flat anti-climax.

Director Todd Olson leaves soon to become assistant artistic director of a multi-space theater complex in Nashville, and if his production of “Hamlet” were the summation of his artistic approach it might be said that Tennessee’s loss is our gain. But this production is aberrant rather than typical --- the only familiar element is his habit of surrounding the action with the audience. Todd directed a sensitive, illuminating version of Chekhov’s “The Seagull” and a smoothly flowing Pinter play, then a powerful no-compromise production of “Death And The Maiden” and an under-rehearsed “Master Harold .. And The Boys”. In each of these his strength as a director lay in eliciting emotionally charged interactions from seemingly committed actors tackling serious human social and political problems. He is a young director with a conscience (and a new son) committed to theater that takes stands and makes people think.

Now that he has proved with this, his second production of “Hamlet” that it is easy to make shows in the grand tradition of Andre Serban’s quaintly familiar iconoclasm --- even without pissing thousands of dollars down the rat-hole of directorial egotism; this was Serban on a shoestring --- I expect he will get back to his emotional center. And Boston is the poorer for this lost opportunity to watch Todd Olson mature as a creative theatrical artist. Though he deserves the chance to use his talents to the fullest, I wish he had found that opportunity here in Boston where I could see his work

Love,
===Anon.

*
Subject: Thank You!
Date: Sat, 13 Feb 1999 15:07:29 -0500
From: Julie Lydon julie.lydon@cbpr.com

Dear Mr. Stark,
I read your review of Boston Theatre Work's production of Hamlet this morning. I was especially pleased to read the following portion of your review:

"Luckily these self-conscious abstractions and objectifications become intermittent and perfunctory as the play unfolds, and something like real dialog between people peeks through the stylizations. But when Hamlet asks the newly-arrived player to “Say on: come to Hecuba” the actress (she is an uncredited chorister, wearing Hollywood high-heeled booties and silver chain-mail tights with matching bolero flack-jacket; all the chorus are in modern motley) launches into the speech with such intense concentration and melodiously impassioned sincerity that this supposed spate of “play-acting” makes all that comes before or after seem like clever games by comparison."

. . . because this is me! Thank you so much for your extremely kind words. What an honor to be recognized by you for my brief moment in the spotlight!
I look forward to meeting you one day in person. Until then, I'll keep your encouraging words in my mind.
Sincerely,
Julie Lydon
First Player and Understudy for Ophelia in Boston Theatre Work's
production of Hamlet
julie.lydon@cbpr.com


“Hamlet” (till 28 February)
BOSTON THEATRE WORKS
Tremont Theatre, 276 Tremont Street, BOSTON
1(617)824-8000

THE THEATER MIRROR, New England's LIVE Theater Guide

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