The Playgoer: REVIEW: "HAMLET" at CSC

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Thursday, November 10, 2005

REVIEW: "HAMLET" at CSC

Hamlet
Directed by Brian Kulick. Starring Michael Cumpsty.
at Classic Stage Company (in previews)

Hamlet does not strike one as an ideal audience-participation play, but in its wonderfully disorienting opening moments, Brian Kulick's production (at his Classic Stage Company) unexpectedly turns it into just that. Perhaps I'm indulging in a bit of a "spoiler" here (to avoid, skip down to the next paragraph). But, trust me, as soon as you give the usher your ticket and are directed to go not to your seat but to cluster with you fellow playgoers on the small stage area... you'll know something is up. Perhaps, like me, you will begin to fear the worst, based on memories of forced-audience- participations past. ("Let me guess, I'm playing the Norwegian ambassador, right?") But before you can think of an excuse to head back to the lobby--"Crash!" goes the sound and... blackout. Then: "Who's there?" A flashlight up in the seats (yes, the audience) hits the truly frightened face of Francisco, the nightwatchman, and all of a sudden we are in Elsinore. Not just in illusionary, but outside it, on the grounds, in the dark, gazing up at these shadowy figures on their improvised "parapet." The next shocker is when they swing their lights in our direction, seeking the ghost, who, sure enough, turns out not to be some generically "spooky" stage effect, but a grey bearded man of flesh and blood moving among us. Caught in the very same searchlight, we nervously back out of the way for this mysterious yet all too real and corporeal figure to brush past. If you're thinking "it's just an actor" then you'll be surprised at the unique chill you'll feel when you actually feel his overcoat grazing up against your arm. That the "realness" of it all doesn't detract a jot from the imaginary world of the play is, in short, the magic of theatre in action.

I've often felt Kulick is a director of gimmicks. The curious "waterslide" to nowhere in his Twelfth Night in the park and the overly literal "scribes" of his CSC version of the "Mysteries" cycle. But I have to give him credit for a real inventive intelligence in this opening. In this scene of the supernatural, confusion of space is what it's all about, both blocking-wise ("He's here!" "He's there!") and philosophically (how do men and spirits cohabitate the stage convincingly). Kulick, appropriately, solves the problems by messing with our sense of space entirely.

I won't say the inventiveness ends there. (You did sense a "but" coming, didn't you.) But it's telling that Kulick doesn't find a way to carry over that initial thrill and promise, other than turning the house lights back on and having his stage manager give us permission to finally take our seats to become a "proper" audience. How disappointing. Kulick continues throughout the evening to offer penetrating insights through via staging and acting choices here and there. But there is not really a consistent tone.

The tone that prevails the most would be the steady quiet baritone of actor Michael Cumpsty. A consummate Shakespearean craftsman with an expert technical instrument, Cumpsty offers an impeccable "reading" of Hamlet, in the best sense of the word. Nary a nuance is missed in his subdued yet highly specific communication of the play's language. But does he compellingly embody Hamlet? Not really. As to anyone familiar with his perennial appearances in Broadway British comedies, Cumpsty's a bit of a stiff--which serves him well in some roles, but it's not what we want from Hamlet. He gains force from his sheer physical presence; he's taller than almost everyone else on stage, and fills out his crisp modern black suits with imposing gravity. His is definitely an intellectual Hamlet (Hamlet the thinker over Hamlet the romantic hero) but still doesn't let us into his mind the way, say, Simon Russell Beale turned the soliloquies into alluring and highly personal thought experiments. In a word, cold.

In that way he's found his match in Kulick, a defiantly and persistently cold director. (The two have collaborated often, most notably in a well-praised Timon Of Athens in Central Park.) The set is a clinical white box, complete with viewing "windows" on the side walls for audiences on the sides of the CSC "three-quarter" thrust space, as if they were observers at a police interrogation (or a hockey game, depending on how you see it). The costume color scheme is pure black and white all around, too, but where good guys like Hamlet, of course, wear the black and Claudius is a white-suited dandy.

Speaking of Claudius, I'm sure some critics will be horrified by Robert Dorfman's giddily decadent usurper, but I was totally sold. Say what you want about his prancing and mincing (yes, he's a bit...fey) but it's also a fresh and thoroughly thought-through interpretation of a role so often taken for granted. Too often, it seems like Claudius is given to a second-rate "older statesman" journeyman actor who aims for authority but isn't the least bit menacing--prompting questions of why anyone fears or follows this lame "tyrant" to begin with. But Dorfman offers us a portrait in unabashed corruption. This Claudius is having such fun. Posing for the cameras in his opening scene, knocking croquet balls as Polonius vies for his indifferent attention, he exudes that Shakespearean motto by way of Mel Brooks, "Tis good to be the king." The self-satisfaction turns dark, of couse, toward the end, in a pathetic display of Nixonian drunkenness, desperately swallowing the very wine he is about to poison!

For everything Kulick and Cumpsty don't get about Hamlet, (as usual, Ophelia was terrible) I did leave grateful for everything they do get out of it. Or, at least, for the amount of care and thought that have gone into the ideas and text itself. If you sit close in this intimate 200-seat theatre (I definitely recommend the first row) you feel almost privileged, as if at a private performance, where some highly skilled actors are setting this usually distant masterpiece right in your lap. Paring down the cast to nine (and the text to a fluid 2:45) this is definitely a "chamber" Hamlet, a dark thinkingman's melodrama about a very bad royal family. Considering how many bloated snorefest productions I have sat through--full of either dull "importance" or kneejerk iconoclasm--this was in many ways a breath of fresh air, even if that air is as chilly as on those parapets of Elsinore.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I totally agree and completely enjoyed the performance. Highly recommended.