nytheatre.com review by Michael Criscuolo
April 18, 2007
(A detailed synopsis of Hamlet can be found here.)
William Shakespeare's Hamlet has challenged artists and audiences for more than 400 years, and with good reason. It cuts to the very core of mankind's existence, forcing the title character (and the viewer) to ask the toughest and most essential questions one can ask themselves: Why am I here? What is my purpose? And, as Hamlet himself famously wonders, "To be or not to be."
With Shakespeare tackling so much in one play, it's easy for audiences to project their own meaning on to it. I would say that's virtually required for Hamlet, a play that is not only weighty, but so well-known. Doesn't everyone have an opinion about this play by now? Or several? No matter how an artist chooses to interpret it, viewers will always get their own meaning out of Hamlet.
But, that's only if an artist has a discernible point of view and sticks to it. I have no doubt that the artists responsible for the new revival of Hamlet by Take Wing and Soar Productions know what the play means to them. Unfortunately, they seem unable to communicate that meaning, whatever it is. Without any other viewpoint to bounce their own off of, this Hamlet may leave audiences asking one of those haunting questions mentioned above: why am I here?
Director Elizabeth Swain never injects this production with any sense of urgency, making the stakes very low for the characters throughout. This is tough on the audience since it prevents them from investing in the story. The trouble starts in the very first scene, when Horatio, Marcellus, and Bernardo spot the Ghost of Hamlet's Father. Swain inexplicably plays this scene on an almost pitch black stage: when the Ghost enters, he gets a special, but that's about it. Unable to see who's speaking and latch on to them visually from the outset, the audience struggles to stay focused and care about them when the lights are on.
There are other seemingly thematic sticking points that are never addressed. Why does Hamlet intentionally block Claudius and Gertrude's view of the dumbshow that precedes the-play-within-the-play? Why is the actor playing Hamlet wearing a wedding ring? We never find out.
Set designer Rob Dutiel keeps the stage mostly bare, which forces Swain to take the stand-still-and-speak approach to her staging. Unfortunately, this does little to help the actors illuminate or activate the text. They all sound good speaking Shakespeare's verse, even if clarity is frequently sacrificed, but most of the cast looks lost at sea.
My hat is off to Timothy D. Stickney for having the courage to take on Hamlet's behemoth title role. He brings a great deal of energy to his performance, and gets Hamlet's regal pedigree down solid. Otherwise, he is too stately and composed, showing us none of Hamlet's suffering or potential madness. Stickney's Hamlet laughs and smiles too much for a man contemplating shuffling off "this mortal coil" for the "undiscovered country" that lays beyond.
Fortunately, Hamlet features a pair of performances that hint at what could've been. Seth Duerr is terrific as Claudius. The language flows naturally from his lips, and he understands how to let the verse help him build and establish character. Arthur French's endearing take on Polonius as a verbose, bumbling buffoon is the most refreshing and three-dimensional reading of the role I've ever seen. Whenever they are on stage, these two men breathe life and humanity into a Hamlet that is otherwise sadly lacking in both.