Bard to Tears
One thing about watching Hamlet, Shakespeare's longest play: By the time the drama drags its boots into the fifth and final act, we groundlings are more than ready to see yon moody Dane die young. The sooner the better, too, because by the time this one ends, it feels as though none of us in the audience will get that opportunity.
There's a production of The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark running at the Shakespeare Festival of Dallas' summer season at the outdoor Samuell-Grand Amphitheater. No, not "running." Not even power-walking. This version of the play appears at times to be crawling toward the final moment when Hamlet's pal Horatio utters "good night, sweet prince" and we can, at long last, hoist our too, too sullied flesh off the soggy lawn and trudge homeward.
Five acts is a lot to ask of theatergoers out for a midsummer night's reprieve from reality TV. Director Raphael Parry has attempted to shorten the suffering by paring down the "play within the play" portion, which takes up 1,000 of Hamlet's 4,000 lines of script when done completely. He also has eliminated various courtiers, ambassadors and servants from the throng of characters crowding the halls of Castle Elsinore. Still, this production feels torturously overlong.
This is a Hamlet suffering from an identity crisis, artistically and technically. The acting is a jumble of styles and attitudes. In the lead, Rhett Henckel, a recent Baylor grad, falls into Method actor mumbling, reducing long sections of Shakespeare's most beloved speeches to a series of garbled grunts. As Ophelia, the nymphet who goes mad when Hamlet dumps her and even madder when her father, Polonius (Barry Nash), is stabbed in the gut, Mikal Evans delivers her lines flatly and without context, the way a sorority girl orders salad at a Wendy's drive-thru.
Queen Gertrude (Sheila Landahl) overacts the tragedy. Polonius underplays the comedy. If King Claudius (Barton Faulks) was smart enough to have masterminded the murder of Hamlet's father, married the widow in a matter of weeks and kept her son, the young prince and rightful heir, off the throne, why then does he behave here like such a bumbleheaded thicky? (Doesn't help that Faulks mispronounces "impious" in his first big speech.) As the Gravedigger, a showy cameo role ripe with possibilities, T.A. Taylor comes off as a yeehawing yahoo. Only William Harper as Hamlet's troubled friend Horatio gives a memorable, clear, well-tempered performance. He'd make a fine Hamlet himself somewhere.
Designwise, Shakespeare Fest's Hamlet also blurs its focus. Is this classical theater or a jacked-up contemporary rock-and-roll thing? Some characters wear modern business suits and others stride around in knee britches and Seinfeldian puffy shirts. Who are those guys in the stretchy black tees and red vests who seem to have just popped over from the holodeck of the Starship Enterprise? And is that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern or the Brothers Karamazov? Giva R. Taylor's costume designs don't seem to have a cohesive concept. The clothes don't even fit the actors well. Ophelia constantly trips over the trailing hem of her sparkly Alice-blue prom gown. King Claudius looks awkward in a slim dark suit over a frilly white shirt sporting a jabot as wide as a lobster bib.
The incongruity continues with the sound design by Bruce Richardson. Noisy crashing waves cue up behind Ophelia's scenes with Hamlet. Sure, she's going to drown later (thanks for the hint), but in the river, not the pipeline off the North Shore at Oahu. Robert G. McVay's lighting design throws so many key characters into murky shadows, it's as if he's following them with a spotlight of dark.
All this mess might be forgiven if Parry had only cast a stellar Hamlet. This is, after all, the Bard's best character in his most familiar, most quoted, most produced work (including 50 feature film versions). Everyone should see it once. Every young actor says he wants to play it once before he's 30. Every pretentious old actor wants to say he once played it well. Among the greats who've donned the tights and held poor Yorick's skull over the centuries were Kean, Barrymore, Olivier, Gielgud, Burton and Branagh. Kevin Kline played Hamlet at the New York Shakespeare Festival in 1990, the same year Mel Gibson made a pass at the princely role in a surprisingly good Zeffirelli movie co-starring Glenn Close as Hamlet's murderous mother, Gertrude. Their scenes together were so steamy they would have made Oedipus blush. (Whether Hamlet and Gertrude ever really got it on has been a subject of scholarly argument for 400 years. "Did Hamlet sleep with his mother?" someone once asked John Barrymore. His answer: "Only in the New York company.")
Hamlet can be a career-making role, but young Henckel doesn't give a star-making effort. Looking like Quentin Tarantino wearing Tiny Tim's hair, the spidery Henckel lacks the physical and vocal technique needed to carry off a role so laden with poetry, sexual ambiguity and conflicting emotions. This actor is weakest in two basic skill areas: talking and moving. How wise he would have been to have heeded Hamlet's own advice to the Player King about how to speak lines "trippingly on the tongue" and how not to "saw the air too much with your hands." Lines stumble out of Henckel's mouth dripping with thick, sibilant S's--"I shwear by my shword"--and he gesticulates broadly on every syllable, like some manic interpreter for the hearing-impaired. (Landahl does the same thing as Gertrude, but when she paws the air, it's as languid as a TV spokesmodel caressing a Radarange.)
When Henckel does raise his voice loudly enough to be heard by the first three rows, he lazily puts the emphasis on the last word of every line:
"To be or not to be: That is the QUESTION.
Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to SUFFER
The slings and arrows of outrageous FORTUNE
Or to take arms against a sea of TROUBLES..."
Hamlet is onstage for nearly every scene, so he should be the most compelling force on the boards. Henckel's Hamlet hides behind clenched fists grinding in front of his face. He blows soliloquies by inserting Walken-like pauses and swallowing half the words. If there are any works in English lit that can and should be heard spoken clearly and without too much physical flourish, it's Hamlet's self-reflective soliloquies. Just stand still in the spotlight and sing out, Louise!
As the evening creeps toward the "witching hour" Shakespeare mentions in Hamlet, bodies start to fall, signaling that the end of Act 5 will arrive sometime before dawn (this production actually runs right at three hours, but it's a long three hours). Gertrude sips from the poisoned cup Claudius intended for Hamlet. Laertes (Ophelia's brother, dressed as Zorro here) pierces Hamlet with a poisoned fencing foil, and Hamlet returns the favor. Hamlet keeps breathing long enough to stab his stepdaddy, shove him off the throne and take his place. Nobody calls 911. Fortinbras shows up on cue to take the crown of Denmark. Sigh, applaud weakly, dash for the exit.
The Hamlet performance reviewed was just after July 4. Beyond the stage at Samuell-Grand Amphitheater that night, random bottle rockets pierced the sky with silvery showers. All evening in East Dallas, the sharp pops of fireworks competed with Shakespeare's words. Too bad there weren't a few more sparks onstage.
Get the Arts & Culture Newsletter
Find out about arts and culture events in Dallas and offers you won't hear about anywhere else.