A Hamlet for the looney bin

I love Hamlet.

Really, it’s an addiction. I’ll take Hamlet in nearly any form. I prefer good Hamlet, but I’ll even put up with a mediocre Hamlet just to hear those lines come out of the mouths of people up on their feet acting them out.   I like film Hamlets, live Hamlets outside in the park, college shows, professional shows, even classroom scene cuttings and random student “adaptations” that leave me wondering how the Dane ended up on Mars with a robot Ophelia and a dog. (I made that up, but I bet someone somewhere has done it.)

If you count the NCS production of Hamlet that led me to read the play several times, assistant direct it, learn the part of Gertrude, teach the play to 25+ students, discuss it at length during the show, and watch the play, oh, 30 times at least? during rehearsals, plus 4 performances (peeking out from the back entrance curtain) …. I’ve seen this play a lot.

So when I stumbled across the news that actor Richard Willis would play Claudius in an edgy adaptation of Hamlet at USC in April, I dropped everything, arm-twisted the husband into clearing his schedule, and fretted all weekend that they might sell out before I could rob the box office of 2 tickets to the show.

Photo by USC.  Richard Willis (right) as Claudius with Laertes.
Photo by USC. Richard Willis (right) as Claudius with Laertes.

Now, don’t misunderstand my love of Hamlet for an indiscriminate wanton willingness to love every bastardization of the Bard’s finest.  Hamlet offers such rich material that you can botch it pretty badly yet the story will survive and it’s probably still worth your time, even if you had to cringe in several places.  So after reading a little about USC’s production design, I knew this would be too controversial to remain on the fence.

Robert Richmond, who’s worked with Folger in DC and headed the Aquila Shakespeare Company, helmed this production. That’s how Richard Willis ended up on board to play Claudius, supported by a strong cast of MFA and theater undergrads at USC.

They decided to set the production in an insane asylum. Yup. It’s a crazy idea (haha) but they were hoping to let the setting itself drive home some serious questions about the play’s themes, especially Shakespeare’s shifting perceptions of madness and sanity.

If you REALLY care, check out this mini-preview of the production (if you watch just the first minute, you’ll see a good preview of a scene with Willis)

We “met” Willis in the Warehouse Theater production of The Tempest last fall, which is one of the finest Shakespeare live productions I’ve ever seen.   I’m sure USC was pulling out the marketing machine to get the word out, but honestly the only reason I knew this show was even happening came because Richard Willis posted photos of himself as Claudius on his Facebook page, which I stalk follow.

Photos like this one:

Photo by USC
Photo by USC

Boom. I was hooked.

The Columbia Free Times put up a great review that hooked me in too — you can read a really detailed overview of the production there if you care for like, actual facts.  I’m just rocking the opinions here, with a large dose of memories and nostalgia and Bard-love.

The insane asylum Hamlet production had potential. It really did.  Claudius rocked it, as I expected.  Willis owns the stage and brings all the creepy murderousness that I like to see in Claudius. None of this mamsy-pansy, weak-villain, 1970s-bad-movie-plot, antihero bullshit.

And I gotta give a shout out to the cast, including James Costello as Hamlet, because there were a lot of strong performances. Ophelia went suitably crazy(er); even the dudes who see the ghost in Act 1 Scene 1 kept my attention.   Rosencrantz showed up as a doctor giving Hamlet a physical, which actually worked REALLY WELL.  And they had two guys playing the Ghost, which meant Old Hamlet could totally freak you out by showing up on the other side of the stage supernaturally FAST.

The Ghost spoke through Hamlet, leaving you to wonder whether the whole ghost-dad-thing was a psychosis or a reality. (Old idea but they sold it well.)  Polonius was a lot more sinister than you usually see, implying that he was jealous himself for Ophelia’s sexual attention.  Ok, so that’s creepy and troubled but it’s theater. Everybody has to “do it new”…

But I am troubled.

As a production, USC’s Hamlet delivered some great thrills and chills and atmosphere and  grungy-Victorian-meets-sex-shop costuming. (Corsets and more corsets! I’m surprised the guys weren’t also wearing corsets! They were into straps and belts.)

But it ironed out all the nuance.

(Maybe you can’t have whips, restraints, and insanity AND expect nuance?)

Photo by USC.  Hamlet comes up behind Claudius as he's "confessing."
Photo by USC. Hamlet comes up behind Claudius as he’s “confessing.”

Claudius was super bad, like ALL THE TIME.  He was bad-ass bad, Irish-gang-tattoo, “I’m gonna eat your face off” kind of bad.  It was amazing during the king’s confession scene, where his thoughts ever “remained below.”

Hamlet’s soliloquies got faster and faster. By the end of “rogue and peasant slave,” I wasn’t sure whether they’d cut the lines down or he’d zipped through it so fast that I’d missed some of my favorites.  The entire second half was like a speed-round.  We couldn’t stop and wonder whether Polonius had it coming or got murdered by a hothead.  We didn’t really think much about how Hamlet took away everything Ophelia cared about, regardless of his intentions.  If you missed the one Elizabethan line about R&G getting axed, you probably missed the question of whether Hamlet wears their blood on his hands too.

By the final scene, the duel (which was a good modernization of the duel, the first I’ve seen…. guns just don’t make sense in that scene at all; Richmond turned it into a knife fight) raced by. Laertes took the cowardly cut to Hamlet’s back (not in the script but nobody ever seems to give Laertes balls in casting or action). The lines explaining Claudius’ poisoned pearl had been cut, so I don’t know how the audience was supposed to follow that Gertrude was drinking poison.

In fact, THAT IS MY BEEF with this production.  If you didn’t already know the story, YOU WERE SCREWED.   The asylum setting offered some cool costume & setting perks, but at the cost to the audience. I bet the actors dug out some amazing character insights (and some of those sparkled through during the production).

But the audience was left to unpack not only 2.5 hours of dense text, and all the deep ideas and universal themes of Shakespeare’s words, they had to figure it out without any context clues for who’s who and how they’re related and what the hell is even. going. on.

The final scene of the show closed with the players returning to the stage (the acting troupe from Act 3) dressed in their comic horror-movie clown attire and drinking the dregs of the poisoned cup while Horatio raced through a couple lines. Hamlet in one breath finished his course on stage — “oh i die horatio this potent poison quite o’er-crows my spirit the rest is silence.”  The psycho clowns fell over dead. Horatio looked …sad.  Lights dark.  Applause.

It was like getting hit in the head with a hammer.

But hey. It was Hamlet.

[Wanna see pics from our 2007 Hamlet? Album here]

 

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