Everybody knows that Shakespeare is hard – hard to read, hard to understand and, especially, hard to act well.
"Hamlet," perhaps the greatest play ever written, is especially hard.
Proof of how hard it is to stage this play is obvious in Dale Gutzman’s production at his Off The Wall Theatre.
The prime difficulty in doing "Hamlet," or any other Shakespeare play, is in the language. He writes precisely. His every word, his every beat, has a special and unique meaning and rhythm. His words are like song, and his First Folio established the parameters for actors for generations and centuries.
This particular production of "Hamlet" has examples of both how wonderful that language can be when done correctly – and how distracting and embarrassing it can be when done poorly.
"Hamlet" is the story of the Prince of Denmark and his quest for revenge over the death of his father at his brother’s hand. The brother, Claudius, not only killed Hamlet’s father but he took over the kingdom and married Hamlet’s mother, Gertrude.
The roles of Hamlet and Claudius are two of the most demanding and treasured roles in the world of Shakespearean theater. They are the opposite poles around which all the action revolves and entwines with the plot machinations for which Shakespeare was at the time and is still so famous.
In this production, Hamlet falls on the capable shoulders of Jeremy C. Welter. He is an actor of considerable skill and achievement, but even this role proves difficult for him in the early going.
Once he got his feet under himself, however, with the famed "To be or not to be," soliloquy, he filled the stage with the mad Dane. Welter has a history of outstanding performance in demanding roles, especially when evil or madness live just below the surface of his character. He fills his Hamlet with too much humor in the early going (kind of like a Danish Pee Wee Herman) but once he got his teeth into things, he sent chills up and down my spine.
The moments when he kissed his mother (he really kissed his mother) and then kissed his father (he really kissed his father) were moments of darkness that best capture the torment of this prince.
Welter obviously worked very hard on the language of Hamlet, and he found much truth in this complex character. I was riveted by his performance.
At the other end of the spectrum, however, was Randall Anderson who played Claudius.
Anderson had what seemed to be something less than a nodding acquaintance with the language of Shakespeare.
His entire performance seemed to be hindered either by acid reflux or a kidney stone about to pass. He looked so pained each moment that he was on stage that it was a wonder he remained standing until being, mercifully, killed at play’s end.
I have seen Anderson do well on stage, but for those who are his fans, this must be a woefully hopeless experience.
In addition to his wooden overacting, his attempt to make the language sing was so off-key that it actually disrupted the story. I found myself chuckling each time he opened his mouth, and that was clearly not a reaction to be hoped for by the playwright.
The rest of the cast rested somewhere between Welter and Anderson. Bob Hirschi, who played Polonius, handled the language well and found the humor that is so often missing in this character. Patrick McCann, who played Hamlet’s friend Horatio, also handled the language well. But the rest of the cast fell far short of the mark, especially Erin Eggers, who played Rosencrantz, and Lawrence J. Lukasavage’s Guildenstern. It was hard to imagine a performance less ready for prime time.
Calynn Klohn, a young actor who played Ophelia, the daughter of Polonius and the object of Hamlet’s lust and love, was as cute and sexy as Ophelia must be. But she made a hash of the language, and in the scene where she has gone mad over the murder of her father, she seemed more drunk than crazy.
Perhaps it would be helpful if all the actors in this play took a moment to read the play, and especially Act III Scene 2, when Hamlet himself instructs actors how to play a scene.
Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounced it to you, trippingly on the tongue. But if you mouth it, as many of your players do, I had as lief the town crier spoke my lines. Nor do not saw the air too much with your hand thus, but use all gently, for in the very torrent, tempest and (as I may say) whirlwind of passion, you must acquire and beget a temperance that may give it smoothness. 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, who for the most part are capable of nothing but inexplicable dumb-shows and noise. I would have such a fellow whipped for o’erdoing...For anything o’erdone is from the purpose of playing, whose end, both at the first and now, as and is to hold, as it were, the mirror up to nature.
"Hamlet" runs through March 20 and information on showtimes and tickets is available here.
With a history in Milwaukee stretching back decades, Dave tries to bring a unique perspective to his writing, whether it's sports, politics, theater or any other issue.
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