There is nothing rotten – though there are some slightly malodorous bits – in Folger Theatre's state of Denmark. Folger's new production of Shakespeare's Hamlet is a beautifully acted and wonderfully engaging piece of theater served poorly by creative choices that add nothing to the overall work. More troubling, they are the kinds of intrusive elements that prove to be ultimately distracting and detract from what could have been a brilliantly rendered show.
(Photo by Carol Pratt)
It's surprising that director Joseph Haj failed to remember that, when all is said and done, the play really is the thing.
For those who are not 1) fans of Sarah Schmelling's Facebook version of Hamlet, 2) in a high school English class, or 3) one of about two dozen people who remember Ethan Hawke in the thoroughly modern, 2000 film version of Hamlet (in which Ophelia drowns in a fountain surrounded by her Polaroid photos of flowers), the story is one of Shakespeare's more straightforward.
Hamlet's father is dead, murdered by his brother Claudius (David Whalen). In the brief time that has passed since his death, Claudius has taken over both the King's throne and his bed. It seems Queen Gertrude (Deborah Hazlett) decided to work through her grief (though she does not know her husband has been murdered) by making the incredibly stable decision to marry her brother-in-law. Having a problem with all this is Hamlet (Graham Michael Hamilton) who, thanks to his friend Horatio (Lea Coco), knows that his father was the victim of foul play and is not at all pleased by his family's new uncle-father/aunt-mother dynamic.
True, Hamlet is a young hothead with a more than passing acquaintance with the madness that seems to run rampant in the play, but he manages to bear this all fairly well. Until, that is, the object of his affection, Ophelia (Lindsey Wochley), dumps him at the urging of her father, King Claudius's advisor Polonius (Stephen Patrick Martin).
And then there's the prince's friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. And the traveling theater troupe. And a lot of crouching behind things to eavesdrop poorly. And the return from France of Ophelia's brother. And Ophelia's ''accident.'' And a war that's brewing. And a lot of poison. And a skull.
Very straightforward. For, you know, Shakespeare.
Hamilton brings Hamlet to the stage with a creeping and dark charisma. Blatantly sexual and broodingly venomous, it's a performance that is at turns shocking and witty.
He's well met by Martin's Polonius, portrayed as a weak-willed, pinstriped ''yes man.'' Martin gives the desperation a convincing flavor that feeds a powerful dynamic. Coco's Horatio is also well played and joins a strong chorus of actors including Hazlett as a proud and sympathetic Gertrude, Justin Adams as a grief-wracked Laertes, and Billy Finn and Dan Crane as a Rosencrantz and Guildenstern with strong chemistry and a great depth of emotion.
Failing this production is James Kronzer's strange and unsatisfying hospital-ward-meets-Soviet-era-office-building set. An M.C. Escher-like warren of sharp angles and inexplicable light wells, there is no clear connection between design and performance. And set adrift in this float are Jan Chambers very contemporary costume designs that, again, tell no real story. There is a kind of Banana Republic/Brooks Brothers approach – with a smattering of SWAT team added for good measure – that seems a bit easy. A sort of off-hand choice that finds equal partner in the forgettable background music provided by composer/musician Jack Herrick.
But these, like Ophelia's wreathes of flowers, are more decoration than structure. Hamlet's strong cast and excellent leading man bring Shakespeare's play brilliantly to the stage.
There is no mistaking it: The Keegan Theatre is trying to seduce us. And given that it boasts mid-century motif dappled sets, sock-it-to-me dresses and a martini-dry Mrs. Robinson (Sheri S. Herren), there is a fair amount in The Graduate to catch a wide-eyed theatergoer's attention.
But while Keegan's production is hardly a ''cute but shallow'' affair – to borrow from Mrs. Robinson herself – there is still something that doesn't quite come together in director Kathleen Akerley's vision.
The story of what happens when 21-year old Benjamin Braddock (Tom Carman) returns to his parents' Southern California home (circa 1966) after graduating college, The Graduate is generally thought of as the movie about a younger man who ends up having an affair with a married friend of his parents. The infamous Mrs. Robinson.
Coo coo ca choo.
But before the 1967 Mike Nichols film that turned Mrs. Robinson and Benjamin Bra ddock into pop culture references, The Graduate was a novel by Charles Webb, written soon after Webb finished college himself.
So while the May-December romance is what is remembered, The Graduate is really a story about trying to answer the impossible. What do I want to be when I grow up? Particularly when, from the standpoint of everyone around you, you already have.
So what is it that's tripping up Keegan Theatre's production? Perhaps it's the problem that is often inherent in tackling material that has long since transcended medium and has, in point of fact, become wholly iconic. Are we all waiting for a young Dustin Hoffman to cross the stage until he is perfectly set off by a frame of leg and silky nylon? Is it the strange juxtaposition struck in a show where some characters appear to be very much struggling to make sense of things in a neighborhood that could be next door, while others are played like cartoonish Laugh-In punch lines? (The real world vs. Jo Anne Worley?)
Or is it, ultimately, that there is still such a strong sense of experimentation uncomfortably needling its way through this production? As though things are still being tried on for size and everything risks being abandoned midway through.
Interesting ideas – like the passing observations made by certain characters in transitional moments – fail to establish themselves as entirely deliberate.
Strong visuals and brilliantly conceived use of the staging – as in the opening party scene where a strong allusion to the jump cuts of film is made – which seem to have legs enough to continue, instead get one brief moment to shine before being dashed back in the trunk.
In the end, a clear artistic vision is just never firmly established so what we are left with is a lovely, but inconsistent, montage.
Applause must be given, however, to Herren and Carman. The two are really quite lovely together and Herren's steel-wrapped wit and near-tranquilized delivery bounce nicely against Carman's stammering, utterly charming Benjamin. It's a match well made.
Unfortunately, the rest of the Keegan Theatre's production is simply not knit well enough to hold together. It seems Benjamin isn't the only Graduate trying to figure out what to do with himself.