Outdoor theater offers scant opportunity for subtlety, but Dallas Shakespeare's current Hamlet, performed to audiences perched on parched grass at Samuell-Grand Amphitheatre, is overacted with such scorched-earth intensity, you worry it might spark a wildfire.
From his first big speech as Hamlet — "O that this too too solid flesh would melt" — actor Cameron Cobb fries the Bard's poetry with the finesse of a flamethrower. Does he turn down the temp for the gloomy Dane's introspection on "To be or not to be" or "Alas, poor Yorick"? No. His Hamlet is a seething dragon, breathing sulphurous heat. He attaches the same angry attack to every look, every line, every soliloquy. It's exhausting to watch and must be exhausting to do. On opening night, Cobb huffed, puffed, panted and perspired from his first entrance to Hamlet's dying words two hours and 45 minutes later.
Director René Moreno, in an atypical lapse of artistic judgment, has staged a Hamlet in which actors compete to out-shout one another. They're equipped with microphones to be heard above the neighborhood's cacophonous police sirens and low-flying aircraft, but they yell their lungs raw anyway.
Cobb commits all the awful actor-y sins Hamlet lectures his own troupe of players to avoid as they prepare the play-within-the-play "The Mousetrap." Cobb blares like a town crier and saws the air with his hands. When he says the bit about how theater should hold a mirror up to nature, he picks up a mirror and waves it toward the audience, a gesture so literal and wrong it's funny. Here's how Hamlet cautions his actors about overdoing things: "Oh, it offends me to the soul to hear a robustious, periwig-pated fellow tear a passion to tatters, to very rags, to split the ears of the groundlings ... "
Groundlings, be warned: Cobb's Hamlet splits ears and tears every speech to shreds, then stomps on the remains and shoots them. Yes, he has a gun instead of a sword in this one. Moreno and designer Jacob A. Climer have moved Hamlet into post-WWII Denmark, though costumes and scenery, both by Climer, make it look more like the Perons' Argentina.
Two good performances do emerge. Supporting actors Alex Organ, who speaks a few clear, crisp speeches as the Prince of Denmark's pal Horatio, and Chris Hury, as Ophelia's brother Laertes, bring subdued nobility to their characters. Everyone else is off their nut, from the speech-impeded blathering of T.A. Taylor's King Claudius and Raphael Parry's Polonius to Jenny Ledel's hysterical, stoop-shouldered Ophelia. When she goes berserk, it's with the crazy eyes and caterwauling of a B-movie scream queen. Drowning is too kind a death.
Hair is full of bits of Hamlet, including a song titled "What a Piece of Work Is Man" (something Hamlet says to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern). The Broadway tour of Hair now playing at the Winspear Opera House is also full of hot young things too young to know firsthand about the Summer of Love.
If you're of the generation raised on the glorious music of Hair — "Let the Sunshine In," "Easy to Be Hard," "Aquarius," "Good Morning Starshine" — you'll enjoy robust performances by a bright, buff cast. But you may also feel a twinge of betrayal of the original piece when you see the clowning around in director Diane Paulus' version of the show. Right away, lead character Berger, played by Steel Burkhardt, whips off his jeans to reveal a fringed G-string and jumps into the audience to grind on ladies and grab sips from their wine glasses. The nude scene now closes Act 1 instead of being the finale.
There's a lot of that level of foolishness in this Hair, which takes the groundbreaking 1968 "tribal love-rock musical" and makes it a silly but colorful blast from the past without a hint of the shocking attitude of anarchy that made kids love it way back when. War? What war? Bet some of the younger patrons at the Winspear looked at the bonfire scene and thought draft-dodger Berger was burning his ATM card.
Hamlet's not the only one having a terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad day. A boy named Alexander's having one in Dallas Children's Theater's production of Judith Viorst's storybook-turned-musical Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day.
For most of DCT's shows, all produced with tippy-top technical stagecraft, having adult actors play little kids works OK. Not for this one, which stars Scott Zenreich, a small-statured adult who in this role looks like what he is, a grown-up wearing a bad wig. It gets kind of creepy watching Zenreich and the other adult actors gamboling about the stage trying to evoke the attitudes and postures of 8-year-olds. You don't accept it for a moment and the pace of the show, directed by Doug Miller, is so sludgy, they age another year or two before it's over.
The story is of a day in the life of Alexander, who dreads school, dental visits and having to buy shoes with his mom. Each scene cues another lame little ditty (lyrics by Viorst, music by Shelly Markham). The only good one is "Shoes," featuring devilishly funny David Lugo as a pushy salesman.
The rest of the show repeats the terrible, horrible, very bad title about 10 squillion times. It's over in 90 minutes, though. If you hurry, you can beat the cast to the nearest bar.