07 April 2006

Not To Be

So a few weeks ago I went to see Hamlet at the Impact Theatre in Berkeley. This was my second Impact Shakespeare production, since I sat through their Henry IV a few years ago, before they switched from the Julia Morgan Center to the basement of LaVal’s Pizza. And I have to say I’m completely baffled by what they think they’re doing. If you read their website or publicity materials, they’re presenting shocking, “street” theater that will rile the traditionalists. What they actually do is what every theater has done since Charles II was restored to the throne and re-opened the theaters: they chop and change Shakespeare to suit themselves. And though Shakespeare is the ever-fixed lodestar of my life, I’ve always felt that one of the reasons he, rather than say Spenser, is the Great Poet is that this adaptation happens in every era and to suit every taste. The originals are still there waiting, and in some ways are best appreciated by reading. I realized long ago that I would never see a Shakespeare production where I thought, “Well, that’s it. They nailed it.” (To rush the point a bit, no, this one didn’t even come close. It’s not even the best Shakespeare production I’ve ever seen in the basement of a pizza parlor, a title that belongs to a Pericles I saw a few years ago.)
Maybe what they do is shocking in the same imaginary world in which the egregiously awful rock music they play between scenes is considered cutting edge or subversive. (Don’t they even know that hiphop has replaced rock as the corporate-sponsored music that shows how rebellious you are?) Actually, this Cal grad from the death-to-disco days felt a sweet nostalgia in hearing punkish electric guitars while sitting in LaVal’s pizzeria, as if it were a scene from The Student Prince in Old Heidelburg. I had that drinking song (“drink, drink, drink to la la whatever”) going through my head the rest of the night. Which was, by the way, torrentially wet.
Though we were assured the play was irreverently slashed, in a way guaranteed to shock the purists, I have to say: (1) it was still three hours long; (2) swiftly moving action is perhaps not the way to capture the essence of Hamlet; (3) purists don’t exist in the theater audience; they’ve switched to opera, where they can reduce the most passionate of the performing arts to discussions over whether X held her A natural a semiquaver short and whether the Duke’s pumpkin pants were really what they wore in Mantua in 1564; (4) just about every production of Shakespeare is cut, sometimes just as radically but almost always more intelligently than this one; even Branagh’s word-for-word film, which retains even the jokes about Elizabethan child actors, is then bizarrely set in the nineteenth century (maybe Kenneth likes epaulets?) and includes a ridiculous chandelier-swing in the final fencing match, and so much for purity in the theater; and (5) did I mention that it was still three hours? In a damp basement? Where I had to sit in wet clothes after walking there through drenching rain? Surrounded by people chewing in my ear? Watching a really mediocre performance? That didn’t even start until after 8:00?
As for performance specifics, well, it seems gratuitously unkind to be too detailed. I genuinely admire and respect people who put themselves out there night after night in a thankless world. But seriously: don’t waste my time. Don’t think you’re blowing my mind open just because Hamlet is wearing jeans and a hoodie. Don’t pretend that my disapproval is only because they pull guns on each other (and apparently there’s only one gun in Elsinore, to be passed from Laertes to Hamlet to Rosencrantz; you can tell because the paint is chipped in the same places – people, it’s a small theater, pay attention to details; and along those same lines – whatever drink Claudius prepares for Hamlet during the fencing match, I’m guessing it wasn’t scotch – is Gatorade too suburban for street theater?). The director, Melissa Hillman, also played Gertrude; Claudius was a much younger man, but not much was made of this; in fact, not much was made of anything. Gertrude and Claudius go at it quite a bit, and they continue to do so even after the closet scene (which, as the fuddy-duddies will recall, ends with Hamlet making his mother promise not to make out with Claudius any more), so what was the point of the scene? Nothing builds; this production was more like those museum tours for the rushed that highlight the five paintings you have to see so you can check them off and then go shopping. Also, if you make Polonius simply ridiculous, a fubsy little fusser, and have even Gertrude and Claudius roll their eyes at him, then all their talk about “the good old man” after his death makes no sense. This may well be the only performance I’ll ever see in which Polonius was more effeminate than Osric (not that I’ve ever found much amusement in the Osric scenes – but again, if Osric is a stocky mumbler, why is Hamlet muttering about what a waterfly he is? Cut the play, sure, but cut it so that it makes sense). Polonius (and also Rosencrantz and Guildenstern) have their comic side, but if you don’t also capture their menacing side you’re not really getting the point.
There was an early attempt to make the now-youthful Claudius sort of a frat brother with Laertes, aligned against the moody arts major that Hamlet obviously was, but it didn’t go far. The actor sometimes sounded like George Bush, but it was hard to tell if this was deliberate or not, or what it might mean anyway (Claudius seems a great deal more capable than Georgey boy.) And he was one of the better actors. Early on, a podium with a presidential seal (an odd accessory for someone repeatedly described as king of Denmark) is brought out for use during his address to the court, something Peter Sellars was doing with Handel a quarter century ago. There are many ways to play madness; the Ophelia found none of them. Most of the minor roles were so bad there’s no point in dwelling on them. Again, I don’t like being pointlessly cruel, but – don’t waste my time. . . . Patrick Alparone as Hamlet was fortunately one of the better actors. I wouldn’t say he was the subtlest Hamlet I’ve ever seen, but clearly the guy was getting no help at all from anyone around him. As Gertrude, Hillman was every bit as good an actress as she was director.
And at the end, Hillman bounds up from the floor to urge us to donate money on the way out, and if we liked the production to tell our friends, and if we didn’t, to “keep our fucking mouths shut.” This to an audience that had just come out in a downpour to spend an entire evening at this production – an audience about a quarter of which was made up of elderly people from a nearby retirement home, some of them in poor health and all of a generation to find such an expression extremely insulting. And, at last, for the first time all evening, I was genuinely shocked. When Shakespeare has epilogues, he always begs the audience’s indulgence and apologizes if they haven’t been entertained, but in this case as in many others Hillman appears to think she knows better than Shakespeare. I’m starting to think this theater doesn’t have a fanbase so much as it has victims of Stockholm syndrome. But what can you expect from people who think rock music is subversive.

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