Saturday, May 28, 2016

First Folio Indy presents a hyper-'Hamlet' for our edgy times

Revenge in mind, Hamlet bends over the anguished Claudius.
The belatedly conscience-stricken King Claudius kneels in an attempt to pray for forgiveness. His nephew Hamlet, on the way to meet his mother the Queen in her bedchamber, steps behind the usurping monarch and raises his dagger high in both hands, like an executioner. Blackout. End Act 1.

It's probably the most striking coup de theatre in First Folio Productions' "Hamlet," which opened Friday night in the auditorium of Ben Davis High School, under the aegis of Wayne Township Community Theatre.

Much of this production's script-tweaking involves shortening the tragedy, the longest of Shakespeare's plays. But this is something different.

Though it's likely that just about everyone who attends the show in its two-weekend run is familiar with "Hamlet," director Glenn Dobbs has designed the break like a cliffhanger, as if to hold the audience in suspense during intermission. What will happen next?

Given that we know Hamlet is not about to fulfill the charge to avenge his father's murder, the production's structure amounts to a witty perspective on the play's theme: What is Hamlet's freedom of action in a situation that hems him in, that "puzzles the will" (to quote a phrase from his most famous soliloquy)? Despite the energy and intelligence of Shakespeare's most enthralling character, he fights in vain to assert a degree of personal freedom over the destiny imposed upon him. (Two years ago this month, I focused on issues of determinism and free will in "Hamlet" and "The Tempest" here, one of six essays on the topic — probably a violation of blogging etiquette.)

Carey Shea's performance in the title role had all the pathos of that situation one could want.  In every moment he's onstage, he seems to proclaim: "I am the hero of a revenge tragedy!" The genre "revenge tragedy," briefly fashionable in the Elizabethan era, runs in a narrow course of death-dealing retributive action. Shea's Hamlet is on edge from the start, as if he can't wait to find an overwhelming purpose in life, a way to overcome his deep unease, under which his father's ghost lays a foundation.

In taking up a story compounded of legend and a lost predecessor version, Shakespeare sought to broaden the hero's perspective, so that he "could count [himself] the king of infinite space," even though he's fated never to assume his rightful place as the king of a small peninsular nation.

There are glimpses of this broader perspective in this show, but there has also been a large sacrifice: much of the trimming removes the dangerous political situation Denmark finds itself in during the time Prince Hamlet is caught up in his personal struggle.

Utterly deranged, Ophelia (Devan Matthias) regards the plants she's brought to court.
Dobbs' trimming of "Hamlet" is consistent and smoothly accomplished, but the result has been to bend the play toward domestic family tragedy — like Tennessee Williams, but with swordplay and iambic pentameter.

The threat from Norway is missing, so the character of the Norwegian prince Fortinbras is gone. No loss there, except as chessman, perhaps. Hamlet's final soliloquy, meditating the difference between his small world and the fate of thousands of soldiers, is lopped. True, in Claudius' scheme to have Hamlet executed after he reaches England, we see how Realpolitik intersects with the play's action, but the view is fitful.

"Hamlet" is so capacious a play that only this aspect is lost, along with part of the hero's sense that it's difficult to trust appearances, confirmed by the behavior of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern — who are gone. Very well, then. We have a lot left, and this production delivers. The imposing, angular unit set suggests the irrelevance of anything much outside the conflicts at court, while the steampunk costuming lends a loose, time-traveling sparkle to the dismal action.

As a character, Hamlet is charismatic, but hard to like. Shea plays this aspect to the hilt. Hamlet's feigned madness — part stratagem, part self-therapy — is limitless in its energy and disregard for others. His love for his mother and disdain for her behavior has an Oedipal twist in this production. There are some stunning indications that his love for Ophelia is genuine, making his cruelty toward her all the more gut-wrenching. At the end of the play scene, where Claudius' guilt rises into view, this production has Hamlet repeat his earlier advice to her: "Get thee to a nunnery." It's as if to say, "Now that you've seen what a moral cesspool you're drowning in, get out while you can." But it's more a dismissal than friendly advice.

Devan Matthias was mesmerizing as the most wronged girlfriend in world theater. When Ophelia slips into madness in this show, it dwarfs the insanity Hamlet is suspected to suffer from. This Ophelia is clearly victimized already by her brother Laertes' and father Polonius' supercilious moralizing, but she doesn't drift into derangement as wispily as some Ophelias.

The ferocity of Matthias' performance in Ophelia's last two appearances complicates our responses to Hamlet's situation. The relationship of the two lovers underlines what seems to me a signal that Shakespeare sends us early on, that nothing good can come of this. The scene that opens with Ophelia attempting to return Hamlet's love notes and ends with her alone, distractedly picking them off the floor, was triumphantly moving.

Hamlet and Laertes grapple in the climactic duel.
Other performances made strong impressions Friday night. Ericka Barker's Gertrude was a tense study in practiced repression of guilt. Though he's too much addicted to finger-wagging, Tom Weingartner's Polonius gave a nice, fussy portrait of superfluous self-importance. As his son Laertes, John Mortell hardly seemed under paternal control.

That willfulness became entirely fitting as Laertes returns late in the show, poised to take his grievances to the point of insurrection. Instead, he is smoothly cajoled by Claudius (Matt Anderson, in one of his best-modulated scenes) to take part in a fixed duel with the Prince. The swordfight, choreographed by Scott Russell, was the equal in unstinted fierceness and rapid coordination of any I've seen in many years.

Among the few things I'm still trying to understand is why the visiting players' presentation of "The Murder of Gonzago" is staged with the comic ineptitude of the "rude mechanicals" show in "A Midsummer Night's Dream." Maybe the idea is to present a mismatch between Hamlet's shrewdness and the awful situation that finally defeats him.

No one in "Hamlet" is in a position to rescue a situation that's beyond hope.  In imploring his mother not to share Claudius' bed any longer, Hamlet says, "Lay not compost on the weeds to make them ranker."

But this in fact is the kind of garden everyone in "Hamlet" is tending. If there are times the words aren't savored adequately, the meaning behind them is relentlessly forced upon us in this fervent production. The compost is rich, and we're down in the weeds with these doomed people.

[Photos by Joe Konz]