This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.
Last week we talked about musicals and next week we'll be talking about another musical, so this week we should talk about serious drama—and it doesn't get more serious or dramatic than Shakespeare's Hamlet. This season has seen two interesting stabs at the Melancholy Dane. The first played earlier this summer at South Coast Repertory. The director was veteran Daniel Sullivan, who's last Shakespeare assignment was directing Denzel Washington in Julius Caesar on Broadway. In the OC, his Hamlet was Hamish Linklater. Linklater's bio stated this was his second time playing Hamlet on stage and the experience showed. His grasp of the language was strong and his portrayal clear. He seemed a bit fidgety early on, but this may have been an acting tick or simply the pressure to keep the action moving so that the SCR patrons wouldn't be out past their bedtime. Hamlets can get very long very quickly, but Sullivan directed this one at an almost breakneck speed. This complimented Linklater's slacker, almost ADD Hamlet, but it tended to make many of the other proceedings feel inconsequential.
The exceptions were the scenes with Dakin Matthews, who wonderfully stopped the show whenever he was on stage. Polonius's most famous line may be "brevity is the soul of wit," but there was nothing brief about this actor's Polonius.
Matthews, a veteran Shakespearian, likely knows the entire play by heart, and he uses this to brilliantly paint Polonius as a self important bore. He dresses up each line in grandiose false modesty, uses his posture to show a man always clawing to be at the center of attention—much more than Linklater's Hamlet, Matthews' Polonius was man dying to be king.
Ultimately though, SCR's Hamlet was a textbook example of honorable futility. Everything was well rehearsed and professional, but little—besides Matthew's—challenged the text or stretched the familiar play in any new direction. Hamlet, more than any other work, is one that should constantly be questioning itself and its reason for being.
In contrast to South Coast Rep's sturdy, credentialed Hamlet, this summer also brings Angelinos an off-the cuff production: You've heard of Shakespeare in the Park, welcome to Shakespeare in the Memorial Park.
A group called Shakespeare in the Cemetery is staging Hamlet in the shadow of Douglas Fairbanks heroic tomb at Hollywood Forever, that graveyard that's become hip in recent years for showing movies on Saturday nights. Why Douglas Fairbanks tomb you ask? Because the epigraph on the tomb reads "Goodnight sweet princes," the famous line from Hamlet tweaked slightly to accommodate the fact that both Douglas Fairbanks and his son are buried there together.
Director Brianna Lee Johnson opens her production with a funeral procession. All of the characters line up and silently pay their respects to the Fairbanks tomb. The inference is that this is the grave of Hamlet's father, the recently fallen King of Denmark, but we also know that by the end of the play, Hamlet will also fall and that father and son will both be united under the soil. It's a great coup de theatre, but it also represents the high point of the production...before a single word is spoken. Once the young actors open their mouths, it becomes just another equity waiver staging with twenty-something's struggling to project their voices over the ambient sounds of helicopters and car alarms.
Of the performers, Ophelia fares best—and not just because she swan dives into a reflecting pool. Sarah Utterback shows some fluency with iambic pentameter and builds a credible character. The only other pleasure in the performance is seeing the gravedigger scene play out in a freshly dug plot. Besides its novelty, this is not a Hamlet to remember; but seeing a healthy number of people spending a summer night experiencing serious drama in a damp cemetery is an odd assurance that theater in Los Angeles is very much alive.
Shakespeare in the Cemetery's Hamlet runs through Sunday at Hollywood Forever.
This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.