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Most Triangle productions of the timeless works of English playwright William Shakespeare (1564-1616) are rather extreme abridgments, with the show’s original three- or four-hour running times cut nearly in half. These two-hour Shakespeares, usually performed at a gallop, with lots of gimmicks added, not only leave out a lot of dialogue. They whittle a lot of the theater’s most unforgettable characters down to mere caricatures.
So it was with Raleigh, NC-based Bare Theatre’s bare-bones production of Hamlet, performed Nov. 16-20 at the Common Ground Theatre in Durham, with two mobile two-story painter’s scaffolds providing most of the scenery. Director Carmen-maria Mandley’s extreme makeover of Hamlet hardly did justice to the dilemma of the noble Prince of Denmark as he mourned his beloved father’s untimely death and his beloved mother Gertrude’s shocking marriage, only a few weeks afterward, to his conniving uncle Claudius, who succeeded Hamlet’s father on the Danish throne.
Even during the preshow, Mandley emphasized the play’s supernatural elements by employing a fog machine and moody atmospheric lighting by Andy Parks to underscore the supernatural elements in the script. Indeed, the spooky preshow, with five jumpy palace guards manning the ersatz battlements and jumping at a series of offstage noises, set just the right atmosphere for a Halloween show.
The problem is, Hamlet is not so much a ghost story as it is a psychological drama. True, the title character (played here by Seth Blum) is spurred on by a face-to-face confrontation with his father’s restless Ghost (Kat Randle), who reveals that he did not die a natural death — the ambitious and unscrupulous Claudius (Greg Paul) poisoned him in order to take his crown and his wife.
So, why does it take Hamlet so long to avenge his father’s murder? Why is he so reluctant or unprepared to take his revenge? Does Hamlet’s overreflective nature prevent from taking action?
Even after a supernatural visitation shocks him into thinking the unthinkable about his uncle and mother, Hamlet’s internal problems — his persistent melancholy, his psychological stumbling blocks — make him hesitate, and hesitate some more, before belatedly embarking down the bloody path to revenge his father’s murder. By the time Hamlet finally swings into action, there has been a lot of what we today would call “collateral damage,” with the innocents Polonius (Del Flack) and Ophelia (Heather J. Hackford) and Claudius’ cat’s-paws Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (Sarah Schmitt and Dylan Parkes) all paying the ultimate price before Claudius gets his just desserts and Gertrude (Megan Day), who may or may not have been unfaithful to her first husband and/or complicit in his murder, and Ophelia’s hot-tempered brother Laertes (Jarrod Swart) all die in the play’s lethal final act.
When she curtails Hamlet’s famous hesitation waltz toward avenging his father’s murder — as well as truncating other scenes that flesh out the principal characters — director Carmen-maria Mandley places a premium on charisma. Seth Blum, for example, simply has to BE Hamlet — to project the Prince of Denmark’s inner turmoil, without all the dialogue to flesh it out — and this community-theater veteran who specializes in comic roles is simply too much of a nebbish to be completely convincing as Hamlet, the heroic Man of Action (when he finally gets off the snide).
Heather Hackford’s histrionic approach to Ophelia tragically transforms the character’s famous Mad Scene into the ultimate Hissy Fit; and Del Flack’s pedestrian impersonation of Polonius robs that infamous old gasbag of some of his most annoying (and amusing) platitudes.
Jarrod Swart makes Laertes a mere hotheaded caricature — Ophelia’s avenger — who blames Hamlet for his sister’s tragic death by drowning and challenges him to a duel; and Sarah Schmitt and Dylan Parkes play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern with little of the panache that inspired contemporary British playwright Tom Stoppard to pen a whole play, Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Dead, about their fateful trip to England, in which Hamlet turned the tables on his two treacherous friends.
Greg Paul and Megan Day put a little more flesh on the bones of Claudius and Gertrude, and Kat Randle and Rebecca Blum make good impressions as the Player King and Queen. But it is all too little, too late. Costumer Jeremy Clos has the Bare Theatre cast all dressed up, and looking good; and sound designer/composer G. Todd Buker (a.k.a. Proxy) created some nice original music for this production. But none of it was not enough to redeem this Hamlet.
Fortunately, Triangle audiences will have two more chances to see Hamlet in the next three months. The whimsical Tiny Ninja Theater production of Shakespeare’s masterpiece, performed with inch-high plastic dime-store figurines, will play Manbites Dog Theater Dec. 7-11 as part of the Durham theater’s Other Voices Series; and Duke Performances will bring the Aquila Theatre Company of New York City back to Durham on Feb. 14th to perform their own offbeat take on the dithering Dane.