Friday, July 29, 2005
Hamlet on the Boston Common
Shakespeare on the Common, presented by the Commonwealth Shakespeare Company, is ten years old this summer. It is a local treasure. Comprised of local actors whose experience runs from student status to seasoned Broadway performer, the company celebrates that range. Boston is magic at night: it is lovely to look up at the rising evening star, sea gulls flying overhead, and the twinkling lights of the buildings. All around are people enjoying picnics or pizzas on their beach chairs and blankets and watching a good play, free. There were literally thousands of people there last Saturday on a perfect summer evening for Hamlet, Prince of Denmark.
I never expect a production of Hamlet to be perfect. I have learned to pick out the actors I like for certain roles or great direction of particular scenes. Long and perhaps over-rich, the text is hard to corral. Abridgements of the play usually try to concentrate on a single theme and end by achieving only part of the whole, but four hours and change is a lot to ask of a 21st-century audience on a warm summer evening. This is Hamlet-lite at under three hours — just fine for the venue.
Although it is masterpiece enough to be almost actor-proof, bad direction can implode the play, and this production had its ups and downs. The large cast of actors in character roles all had their virtues. Will Lyman as Claudius and Sam Weisman as Polonius were particularly wonderful, as they navigated surely to clear interpretations of the smooth, corrupt usurper and the comic, toadying courtier respectively. Unfortunately, Hamlet was played by an immature actor, Jeffrey Donovan, who had it wrong most of the way through and kept fluffing his lines. To give him a little credit, he played the role exactly as he said he would in a Boston Globe interview: Hamlet as a 19- or 20-year-old, with all the attendant characteristics of a stereotypical fraternity boy. This is dead wrong: Hamlet is not only a prince raised in the knowledge that upon him "depends the safety and health of this whole state" of Denmark, but he is 30 years old. Originally written for the experienced star of the Renaissance London stage, Richard Burbage, the part is complex enough to require the life experience of that 10-year difference. Donovan's Hamlet was annoying, and by yanking the rhythms awry and lacking dramatic and comic timing, he demonstrated too often that he was insecure in his role. The "sorrowful" Ghost was too aggressive and screechy, and Ophelia was over the top from the beginning, sabotaging her transition from sanity to madness. These actor problems should have been addressed by the director.
Still, direction was like that in a really good college production, fine for this young company, and actually had a couple of high points. The use of oversized puppet costumes for the play-within-a-play effectively combined the "dumb-show" aspect of "The Mousetrap" with a line reference to a "puppet." Setting the court in a circle with Claudius in the center having to keep moving around it to address everyone (the center of a maelstrom) was very powerful. One real low point, though, was Hamlet's appearance in a bathing suit with a plastic raft, CD-player, goggles, and water wings as if on a beach when he meets Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Was this meant to beat us over the head with the idea that they are his schoolfellows or to grasp desperately at comic moments that the actor could not handle without props? Should we forget that we have just seen a couple of guards and Horatio freezing on the parapet talking to the Ghost? Some of the other comic moments seemed strained too, as if they had been overlaid on the production, rather than emerging from the text. Also, Ophelia spent a long time floating in the pool in front of the stage before drowning, and when she finally did drown, she merely replayed Gertrude's beautiful, poetic speech about the event. By that time the actress appeared to be a dead prune. The sound was absolutely excellent — nobody, no matter how far away from the stage, had to miss a word, and lighting was fine for outdoor theatre.
Despite its flaws, Hamlet is great outdoor summer entertainment in Boston, and the price is right. Shakespeare's delicious banquet of words, combined with the beautiful and congenial atmosphere of the Common's parade ground, are a real treat. Hamlet runs through August 7. The company presents Hal Harry Henry, with selected text by Shakespeare, from July 27 through July 31 at the Boston Center for the Arts' Stanford Calderwood Pavilion. Matinee performances of Romeo and Juliet begin on July 29 and run through August 6 at a variety of locations in the city, including the Common. For more information about this Boston treasure, visit www.freeshakespeare.org.
© 2005 The Carlisle Mosquito