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Much Ado About Hamlet

Two Shakespeare plays by the same company come off very differently

Michael Sullivan (above, center) isn't too low for a high praise; Patrick Kilpatrick (below, right) remembers poor yorick.

By Anna Ditkoff | Posted 6/30/2010

Much Ado About Nothing and Hamlet

By William Shakespeare

In Repertory through July 1 and 25 respectively at the Patapsco Female Institute historic park

It is all the rage to set Shakespeare at some different time--Taming of the Shrew in the Wild West or Richard III in the 1930s. These plays are already a mismatch of anachronisms, set in one time but tending toward the conventions of the period in which they were written--clocks chiming in ancient Rome--so adding a third time into the mix has to be done expertly with real intention and thought.

The Chesapeake Shakespeare Company is currently performing two plays in repertory outside at the ruins of the Patapsco Female Institute, the comedy Much Ado About Nothing and the tragedy Hamlet. They are very different plays helmed by directors who took nearly opposite approaches. Ryan Whinnem, founder of the Mobtown Players, sets Much Ado during the Spanish Civil War, while CSC artistic director Ian Gallanar offers a very classic take on Hamlet complete with doublet and hose.

Whinnem's change of venue does the play no favors. It was difficult to discern what the setting was supposed to be. There was some Spanish-sounding music and some clothes reminiscent of the period, but the connection was tenuous, a fact Whinnem cops to in the program. "As we worked on this production, we realized that the politics of 1930's Spain fit in certain ways but didn't in others," Whinnem writes, so he created a mishmash of Italy and Spain during a less bloody civil war of some sort. The result feels as confused as it sounds.

If this were the only problem with this Much Ado, it might be overlooked. Who cares about the backdrop and costumes when Beatrice and Benedick, two of Shakespeare's wittiest lovers, are throwing barbs back and forth? This relationship is where the play lives or dies. Unfortunately, the two were not equally matched. Michael Sullivan is perfect as Benedick, wringing every bit of humor out of his lines in a way that felt positively effortless. CSC's managing director Lesley Malin didn't fare as well as Beatrice. She came off as shrill rather than playfully sharp tongued and the couple had little chemistry.

The supporting cast was similarly hit or miss. Kate Molinaro delivered a delightfully Olive Oyl-esque Hero, Beatrice's cousin and the beloved of Claudio (James Jager), but Jager mugs too much. Shannon Listol steals every scene she's in as Margaret, Hero's gentlewoman. And Jared Mercier does well as Borachio, sidekick to villain Don John (Brandon Mitchell).

A subplot in which the very dense malapropism-spouting captain of the guard, Dogberry (Dave Gamble), leads his fellow watchmen through very accidentally saving the day is always problematic. It's funny on paper but rarely comes off so in practice. And here is no different. The scenes feel forced and elicit more smirks than actual laughs.

Gallanar's Hamlet is by far the more even production of the two. While Much Ado rests on the interaction of its leads, Hamlet falls fully on the shoulders of the titular character, and Patrick Kilpatrick's Hamlet is excellent. It's a hard role necessitating not just for its size but range of emotion, and Kilpatrick proves himself up to the task at every mood swing. His Hamlet is full of rage but also frightened and vulnerable, a young man anxious for fun and romance and tormented by his need to forgo both due to the murder of his father and his mother's hasty remarriage to his uncle, the man he believes killed his father. But the most impressive part of Kilpatrick's performance is his ability to illustrate Hamlet's vanity and self-absorption while still making us care deeply about what happens to him.

Like Much Ado, the supporting cast has high and low spots. Rebecca Ellis' Ophelia is excellent, playing Hamlet's naïve lover, the spurned young woman, and Ophelia's madness with delicacy and a grounding that is deeply moving. David Tabish is a joy as Polonius, making the old fool a pleasantly likable character. Unfortunately, Michael Boynton's Laertes is a mess. He is too over the top and his attempt at crying is painful in the wrong way. Gertrude (Jenny Leopold) and Claudius (Steve Beall) both fare well, but run into trouble when hitting on extreme emotions.

Gallanar runs into the same problems with his comic relief as Whinnem did with Dogberry. You can tell it's really supposed to be funny, but it mostly isn't. Rosencrantz (Jager) and Guildenstern's (Michael Burgtorf) ongoing game of rochambeau is pointless and the Grave Digger (Gallanar) scene feels out of sync with the rest of the production.

Finally, the outdoor setting does Much Ado more favors than Hamlet. Hamlet's early night scenes take place in full daylight and the actors feign cold in bulky clothes while the audience sweats in tanks tops and shorts. Still, if you are only going to see one of these shows, Hamlet is the one to see. With a Hamlet and Ophelia this talented, it would be a shame to miss it.

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