November 4, 2010

Theatre Review: I AM HAMLET

"Never eat at a place called Mom's. Never play cards with a man named Doc. And never sleep with a woman whose troubles are worse than your own." - Nelson Algren.
Very sound advice, that. I would add a codicil: never go to plays (especially Shakespearean adaptations) written and directed by someone who bills himself as "The Shakespeare Guy." Would that I had heeded that advice this evening. Having seen the list of Joe "Shakespeare Guy" Siracusa's other Shakespearean adaptations, including "A Midsummer Knight's Ice Cream" and "The Bard and the Bear," a creeping sense of dread set in as I awaited the curtain.

A wise man once said, "The play's the thing." It's a quote that both writer/director Siracusa and actor Brian Morey should know well, and it's a pity that they put the focus elsewhere, on a self-indulgent production that puts the focus on the actor, the performance, and a grab-bag of gimmickry rather than on the play itself. I found it to be a rather intolerable display of ego, both of the writer and performer. What does it add to our understanding of the play, or of its title character? Nothing.

This is a one-man show; and no, it's not a re-telling of Hamlet from the perspective of a single character. Morey plays everybody, so inevitably the show won't be about Hamlet (the play), or Hamlet (the character), or for that matter Shakespeare. It's all about Morey's bag of actor tricks, and not a single one goes unused. His entire vocal range is utilized, as are a dozen distinct stereotypical characters and physicalities, he dons all manner of costumes, masks, and wigs, and he sings his heart out in a variety of styles and pitch ranges. He makes sure he shows us the length and breadth of his substantial talent and training, and won't let us go until we know just how hard he's working. And that's the problem here; this show is not built for the audience to appreciate the psychological profundity of Shakespeare's humanist masterpiece, it's built for us to marvel at the efforts of a single actor.

The strength of an actor, we're told, is his or her ability to lose one's sense of ego, and go boldly and fearlessly into situations of emotional vulnerability or extreme ridiculousness. And Morey certainly finds himself in such situations. As the Ghost, wearing a giant horned helmet, wearing platform shoes and bearing an enormous shield, I'm sure he felt fearsome indeed, but it was all I could do to suppress the urge to shout "NI!!"

And as Ophelia, which he performs in a white dress and blond wig, I really wish the burly brunette actor had shaved his full beard, especially when he launched into an earnest falsetto (and self-composed) love ballad. High camp? Apparently not. If he was daring us to laugh, it was a dare I only resisted by biting the inside of my cheek to the point of bloodletting.

Siracusa's adaptation doesn't do Morey any favors either. Shakespeare's text has been re-assembled in order for Morey to only have to play one character at a time, turning dialogue into monologue, but in some places Siracusa cops out and has Morey shout to offstage characters and converse with a pre-recorded voice (also Morey). The Players sequence is done as a pre-filmed silent movie - quite cleverly, actually - in which Morey of course plays every character (and provides, thankfully, a beardless Ophelia), including the watching courtiers, while the actual solid flesh actor gets to take an early intermission. This is a solo show, so I call "cheat."

Siracusa also takes some liberties with the wording, adding in his own original contributions which jar. Really, why does Ophelia say "Oh, my lord, I have been so scared of Hamlet's madness!" Does he think we wouldn't know what "affrighted" means? And we really don't need the updates: "I am Hamlet. I am being watched. People are trying to kill me." And when Morey namedrops both himself and the BCA in the "What A Rogue And Peasant Slave Am I" speech, it's Brechtian in the worst sense of the word, and to no apparent purpose.

A scene most telling in its absence is Act Three, Scene Two, Hamlet's advice to the players. It's sound advice that Siracusa and Morey seem to have deliberately chosen to avoid, to their peril: "Oh, it offends me to the soul to hear a robustious periwig-pated fellow tear a passion to tatters, to very rags, to split the ears of the groundlings, who for the most part are capable of nothing but inexplicable dumb-shows and noise". And later on, he famously counsels "for anything so o'erdone is from the purpose of playing, whose end both at the first and now, was and is, to hold as 'twere, the mirror up to nature."

Would that they had.

PS - A recurring line, both spoken and sung, is "Something's Rotten in Denmark. Something Stinks." Although they open the door for me, I won't take the bait. It's just too easy.

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