Shakespeare's best-known play is performed too fast for the audience to absorb
Reviewed by Barry Pineo, Fri., Sept. 24, 2010
Scottish Rite Theatre, 207 W. 18th, 472-7247, www.scottishritechildrenstheatre.org
Through Oct. 3
Running time: 3 hr.
William Shakespeare's best-known play probably requires no introduction, but introduce it I will. Its story of a young prince who constantly outthinks himself probably contains more famous lines ("Something is rotten in the state of Denmark,"
"Neither a borrower nor a lender be," "The rest is silence," etc.) than any other play in existence. It probably contains the most well-known piece of writing ("To be or not to be") outside of "In the beginning ...." It probably is not just Shakespeare's best-known play but the best-known play of any writer, anytime, anywhere, and probably the best-known piece of literature outside of that most ubiquitous of all books, the Bible.
Which means that any production of Hamlet comes with a load of baggage big enough to fill Austin-Bergstrom International Airport. Anyone who sees it probably knows it, and anyone who knows it undoubtedly has preconceptions about it, which means anyone who takes it on should take a bow just for setting off on the journey. Difficult enough to do a play that no one knows; much more difficult to do a play that everyone knows. So a tip of the hat to the Scottish Rite Theatre for producing this paragon of literature.
The production, directed by Andrew Matthews, begins auspiciously enough, thanks to the use of Scottish Rite's beautifully painted castle drops, a single flashlight, and some sonorous, spooky sounds, also provided by Matthews. The beginning of the production stunned me, and then the actors proceeded to run through the first scene so quickly I wondered if anyone in the audience, even those who knew the play, could possibly understand what was going on.
And that was basically the theme of the evening: Speak really fast. The production, which Matthews has cut judiciously, runs three full hours, but it should have run three hours and at least 15 minutes, the extra time being taken up with the actors making more sense of the text they deliver so hurriedly, as well as with taking time where necessary for the audience to actually absorb what they're seeing. Almost never did those two things happen, but when they did – for example, in the famous "closet" scene between Hamlet and his mother, Gertrude – the production worked. There were more than a few things about the production that worked, including Matthews' rich sound design (which could have been used to even greater effect), Cherie Weed's costumes (which, though probably done on a shoestring budget, were helpful in setting the scenes and embodying the characters), and especially Babs George, who played Gertrude as both a repressed party girl and a guilt-ridden wife and mother.
But when the highlight of a production of Hamlet has little to do with the text that Shakespeare wrote (the entrance of the players, performed as inventively as any scene I've ever experienced in a Shakespeare production), something isn't right. Notably, the end of the play was moving, and Patrick Kaufmann as Laertes and Justin Scalise as the title character had more than a little to do with that, as they battle with rapier and dagger quite effectively. That battle has a visceral effect on the audience and the way they perceive what they subsequently watch, so even if you're not hitting the mark vocally, if you hit it physically, it will have an effect. Which only goes to show: That Shakespeare guy, he really knew what he was doing.