For many directors, Hamlet represents a kind of Mount Everest—a climb every bit as daunting as King Lear, though somehow a more necessary test of one’s artistic mettle. No matter that the challenges of such a text are Herculean, starting with the question of how to deal with a protagonist whose intense flame of consciousness exceeds the imaginative world of his play. It was for this reason that T.S. Eliot famously branded the work “an artistic failure,” uneasy with the way Shakespeare expanded a simple Revenge drama into a theatrical experience of disproportionate mental weight. Still, the mark of genius is apparent to all but the most resistant of readers, even if it remains a mystery how to make the work dramatically glow onstage.
Obviously, when it comes to presenting Hamlet, the readiness is all. Few directors, however, manage to acquit themselves on this score, seeming as textually underprepared as they are theatrically overwhelmed. This is disappointingly the case for two current productions: one by the eminent avant-garde director and theorist Richard Schechner and his group East Coast Artists, the other by Paul Angelo, artistic director of a shoestring company of young actors known as the New Ensemble. Both approaches can be likened to that of the proverbial blind men groping the helpless elephant—each of the individual parts is handled in a sensationalized manner, without the benefit of any unifying vision or sense of the whole.
Schechner offers not much more than a succession of gimmicks, some of which are momentarily amusing, though surprisingly deficient in content or useful suggestiveness. His Hamlet, for example, played by an African American actor, strikes a series of poses that gratuitously include a ghetto homeboy and a
ganja-smoking Jamaican dude. This is no Modernist Prince with his tortured thoughts exposed, merely a vain attempt at something fresh and hip.
The women, in turn, are mercilessly mocked: Gertrude is transformed into a Marilyn Monroe ditz with a Betty Boop voice, while Ophelia looks like a cross between a horny Shirley Temple and a Raggedy Ann doll. The cartoon subtlety reaches a crescendo with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who are dressed identically in formal wear complete with rat tails and furry backs—obviously not the kind of pals you can let scamper around the castle unwatched.
Why Horatio, Polonius, and Claudius are portrayed in more traditional ways is puzzling, though even more confounding is the script Schechner cobbles together from various sources, including the First Quarto of 1603, a pirated version most scholars attribute to an author
other than Shakespeare. The director claims in a program note that he wanted “a text that would tell the story clearly, heighten the characters, and allow for lucid and sometimes surprising staging.” Instead, what he achieves is a long evening of diminished poetry and interpretive silliness, supposedly inspired by the idea that “the time is out of joint.” But what really needs realignment in Schechner’s production is the sloppily executed concept.
One encouraging note: While George Hannah seems still too young to play the melancholy prince, he clearly possesses the vocal skills and physical agility for a more serious crack at the role. Given the way Schechner likes to keep working on a project, perhaps in a few years the actor will get another chance to reveal the depth of his unusual portrait.
Angelo’s New Ensemble staging inexplicably begins in a homeless shelter, where a guy who’s down on his luck begins reading Hamlet, only to take the starring role himself in the production that ensues from his imagination. This frame, once established, is quickly forgotten, making the setting seem like merely an excuse for shoddy production values and counterintuitive casting. In this way a poor man’s version of Shakespeare’s masterpiece gets palmed off as a beggar’s dream.
The piecemeal direction features flashes of interesting thought, though nothing is carefully developed or integrated. Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” speech, for example, is presented with the actor in conversation with himself on video—an interesting idea, but one that doesn’t quite justify the incongruous, onetime introduction of a television set.
This catch-as-catch-can style is particularly apparent in the way the script is cut. Many of the scenes are abridged without concern for narrative clarity, while others are simply rushed through as though the goal were to clock the production under a certain running time.
Steven McElroy is clearly an actor of intelligence and versatility, though he doesn’t exactly project a figure of charismatic nobility. His diminutive Hamlet is marked more by wry neurosis than piercing intellectual strength. Still, his technical skill is evident throughout. The supporting cast features Scott C. Reeves’s dashing Laertes and Laura McCord’s increasingly somber-faced Gertrude. The rest, out of critical beneficence, is silence.