Los Angeles Theater Review: HAMLET (The Broad Stage in Santa Monica)

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by Thomas Antoinne on November 17, 2012

in Theater-Los Angeles,Tours

LEAN HAMLET ON THE BROAD STAGE

Shakespeare’s Globe’s touring production of Shakespeare’ Hamlet is currently on the boards at the elegant Broad Stage in Santa Monica, CA.  Written in a time of great upheaval in Britain after Elizabeth’s reign, Hamlet falls neatly into the family of Jacobean revenge tragedies. Shakespeare most probably wrote Hamlet as a cautionary tale to warn the citizenry and couriers not to usurp controversial King James, as a higher moral order would most likely correct any transgressions.  By paring the cast down to a lean group of 8 actors with judicious editing and double casting, director Bill Buckhurst guides his Globe team of designers, dramaturgs, and performers away from Shakespeare’s epic towards a more Brechtian style.  The result is an always interesting, yet ultimately disconnected production.

Thomas Antoinne’s Stage and Cinema review of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre HAMLET at The Broad Stage in Santa MonicaOn the surface there’s little to criticize.  The production hits the standard high marks expected from a well subsidized, state-of-the-art British company dedicated to both original and best practices.  Jonathan Fensom’s spare set suggests both timeless and universal.  The costumes borrow effectively from the first half of the 20th century to imply a general wartime feeling.  The small playing space feels like a dusty diorama discovered in an attic and mystically brought to life by actors and musicians conjured by theatrical magic.  Buckhurst unapologetically employs many trendy post-modern flourishes: house lights are never brought down, the company of actors gather onstage as the audience does, and an original score is added to the production by the talented musician Laura Forrest-Hay and composer and arranger Bill Barclay.  The general style of the production is lighter than it is melancholic, always erring on the side of the realistic for a sense of balance and implied contemporary sensibility.

Thomas Antoinne’s Stage and Cinema review of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre HAMLET at The Broad Stage in Santa MonicaThe acting is always competent and often superb.  Michael Benz’ Prince of Denmark is never performed as a star turn, yet he fills the role beautifully with a modern sense of confidence.  His youthful exuberance is never thwarted by severe melancholy that has tripped up more traditional Hamlets.   His Hamlet is smart, energized, funny, and sexy.  He handles the set pieces without bringing too much attention to their familiarity, and his “Alas, poor Yorick” speech is extremely affecting.  Miranda Foster is the other standout playing four roles, most effectively as Gertrude and unrecognizable as the Second Gravedigger.  Foster’s description of the death of Ophelia is one of the production’s highlights, performed with such freshness as if Shakespeare had written the monologue with her in mind the night before.

Thomas Antoinne’s Stage and Cinema review of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre HAMLET at The Broad Stage in Santa MonicaBuckhurst and his team reduce the playing time to well under three hours.  The show is always efficient, clear, and accessible. The trade-off for this much appreciated condensed text is a reduction in the emotional impact of the piece as a whole.  Steering clear of arousing any manipulations with feelings organically a part of Shakespeare’s epic style, the play veers head-on into Brechtian epic territory, engaging the intellect over the feeling state.  However, unlike Brecht, Shakespeare was not so interested in dialectic arguments.  Shakespeare doesn’t actually posit “To be or not to be” for audiences to consider suicide as a possible solution to their own problems.  Shakespearean and Brechtian epics may overlap in their belief that the individual ultimately lacks the ability to change the world; however, Brecht believed it is only through communities and outside forces that change can ever be affected.  By forcing the audience to re-consider Shakespeare’s Hamlet through a Brechtian lens, we’re left with a stark, intelligent, well-spoken, yet emotionally distant production of one of the greatest plays ever written.  The Buckhurst Globe production doesn’t ever completely arrive, but it’s an interesting experiment, especially for Shakespeare aficionados.

Thomas Antoinne’s Stage and Cinema review of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre HAMLET at The Broad Stage in Santa MonicaThe Buckhurst production does manage to transcend this shortcoming on several occasions, especially in the Player’s stylized dumb show with its percussive, almost Balinese thrust and matching staccato movements that beautifully mirror the play’s interior turmoil.  Also, Fensom’s set design includes two simple red curtains that serve as the traditional arras and Players’ performance curtain.  Buckhurst manages to utilize the larger curtain for some skillful theatrical legerdemain that allows the Player King to be double cast as Claudius without missing a beat or seeming silly.  The moment of Claudius’ reaction to the play-with-a-play becomes a marvel of theatrical stagecraft.  And the final dance – one of the loveliest traditions from the original Globe’s original practices – is elegantly performed, bringing all the characters back to life and sending the audiences safely back to their own lives. When Shakespeare’s Globe performs a comedy, the dance is a joyous wedding celebration; choreographer Sian Williams manages to strike the right tone with a more neutral, stately breaking of the fourth wall for a perfect punctuation to an evening with a tragic outcome.

Thomas Antoinne’s Stage and Cinema review of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre HAMLET at The Broad Stage in Santa MonicaBuckhurst directs as if he always wants us to be aware that we are watching a new take on a Globe tour of one of the greatest plays ever written.  However, the ultimate goal of Buckhurst’s vision of Hamlet is never clearly articulated or argued.  Attempting Brechtian devices without an organic dialectic within the text unintentionally opens up a whole other series of questions.  Beyond taking a new look at a great play, one begins to ask, “Is this production justified and what is the relevance of doing this play in the style at this point in the history of the world?”

photos by Fiona Moorhead

Hamlet
Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre at the Broad Stage in Santa Monica
scheduled to end on November 25, 2012
for tickets, visit The Broad Stage

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