Baltimore Shakespeare Festival gives Hamlet 21st-century foibles
At the end of Hamlet , two ghosts are left walking the earth. There's Hamlet, the dead king, who was killed by his brother before he was able to take the sacrament. And there's his son Hamlet, who goes on to become the cultural archetype of the young, charismatically indecisive brooder. Prince Hamlet is also a part-time theater critic who offers his advice to a group of itinerant professionals who drop by the palace. Theater, he tells them, should show "virtue her own feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure."
He'd probably offer the same advice to the Baltimore Shakespeare Festival, which presents the bard's work for the wine-and-picnic basket set on the grounds of the Evergreen Museum and Library. The question that this production faces and director Michael Carleton confronts head on is, plainly: Is Prince Hamlet, at least the one we know and love, really a reflection of the age and body of our time?
To recap the story, this Dane is a college student who's been called back from Wittenberg for interterm. Hamlet (Dan Crane) has found his mother Gertrude (Libya Pugh) in bed with his uncle Claudius (Bruce Nelson), two months after his father's death. He learns that his father was murdered by said uncle, and he's not sure what to do. Hamlet spends three hours wringing his hands, spouting existentialist philosophy, driving his girlfriend Ophelia (Emily Zempel, in a riveting performance) crazy in the process, and painting himself into a corner with constant thought.
In the early 20th century, he became a poster boy for modernism: charismatic, thinking outside the box. Now, in the 21st century, it's reasonable to wonder whether, as a reflection of "the age and body of our time," that version is still valid.
Face it: Indecision and inactivity these days has nothing to do with brooding and/or philosophizing. It's this country's last natural resource. It fuels our economy, creates an infinite entertainment zone, and turns the world into a limitless MySpace for endless surfing. Hamlet, these days, would have a huge assortment of video games on which to take out his wrath. He could start blogging anonymously on the Palace web site.
That's the reality that Carleton is trying to come to terms with here. In this production, Hamlet is neither charismatic nor even that thoughtful. He's a hyperactive eager beaver in a china shop. Or, possibly, an action-figure antihero who seems to jump from one disaster to the next without really pausing long enough to take in the full consequences of his acts. When he accidentally kills his girlfriend's father behind the scrim, he doesn't miss a beat. When he delivers his "to be or not to be" monologue, he speeds through it, delivering it straight to Ophelia, instead of offering the traditional, in-the-spotlight pause for thought.
Carleton isn't the only director facing this sort of quandary. A recent Hamlet in Washington, D.C., offered Hamlet as an ADD navel gazer with an iPod. And who knows? Maybe we're getting to something elemental about Hamlet that we've forgotten after centuries of star turns. Hamlet is an annoying fuckup, a hypermanic guy who acts impulsively, as if the world is his own little laptop. Whenever action is really called for when he has the sword in hand, and his uncle is silently praying he sits around and wonders whether it's politically correct, or what it would do to his employment prospects in the afterlife.
In a perversely appropriate way, that leaves the middle-aged Claudius as the main brooder, the one male in this play who appears to understand how badly things are going. Bruce Nelson, known for his comic roles, plays this guy with uncharacteristically gloomy distemper. The truth is, of all the characters in this play, Claudius has actually taken matters into his own hand, by pouring poison into his brother's ear hole. From the opening scene, he fully understands how stupid that was. Claudius purportedly did this out of desire for Gertrude and that gets played out in most productions but here it doesn't look like he's enjoying the fruits of his labors. The crown on Claudius' head, meanwhile, looks more like a shackle than a prize.
This fast-forward version of Hamlet doesn't necessarily satisfy in the traditional ways, but director Carleton doesn't push the obvious buttons, either. Judging from his own theatrical philosophy, the Prince himself would have approved.
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