Rorschach HAMLET: A Review of Marin Shakespeare Company
June 26, 2018 § 1 Comment
The most underrated production in the Bay Area right now is Marin Shakespeare Company’s Hamlet, which is brilliant in its deceptive simplicity.
It is not that the production has been received with any hostility. It opened in late May to respectful, if lukewarm, reviews. But, I think it is much better that it has been given credit for being. In fact, it speaks with a powerfully current voice, and it is a production that one should not miss.
The reasons why it has not been fully appreciated are clear enough. The house style of this company is not flashy, not spectacle-oriented, and almost allergic to conceptual trendiness. The focus is firmly on the performances (which can admittedly vary in sophistication due the youth and inexperience of the typical supporting cast) and on letting the text speak for itself. What emerges from this mix in this particular case is a production with the energy of a Rorschach inkblot. It is mostly neutral with just enough detail to evoke in the viewer a powerful, and personal, response.
Marin Shakes is an intensely family affair. Artistic Director Robert S. Currier helmed this production, which was produced by his wife, Lesley Schisgall Currier, with a set design by his son, Jackson Currier, and stars his other son, Nate Currier, in the title role.
Modern Dress Without Fuss
Currier’s production is a modern dress production (costume designs by Tammy Berlin), but far from the high-concept intensity of, say, Robert Icke’s production starring Andrew Scott that electrified London a year ago. With the exception of Hamlet, himself, the costumes are mostly neutral – a nod to the Elizabethan manner of producing the plays in the dress of the time.
Nate Currier’s initial costume (spoiler alert coming) is more provocative. In his first man-bunned appearance, he is wearing the black trenchcoat, boots, and attitude of a disaffected youth you vaguely worry about being a potential school shooter. He looks like he could have walked in from any suburban junior college. The fact that he seamlessly blended into the opening night audience and sat among us until he rose to spit out his defiant first line made this all the clearer.
Guns, Guns, Guns
Before we saw (or at least knew we were seeing) Hamlet, however, we were treated to machine gun-carrying guards on the ramparts and a heavily-guarded court scene. The most modern thing about the production is that guns are everywhere.
The emphasis on acting over spectacle is never clearer than the appearances of the ghost. Veteran Shakespearean Barry Kraft is magnificent as the appearing and disappearing ghost, which he accomplishes in the open air by sheer force of his performative skills: he simply turns on and off presence in a way that you know you are watching a brilliant actor or else just quit seeing him. (Aside from an offensively mincing Osric, the only misstep in the production is that while playing the ghost, Kraft’s voice is electronically altered, which is entirely unnecessary when the actor is himself creating such a powerful illusion.)
For me, the production sunk home in the famous scene in which Polonius (Steven Price) offers a cornucopia of advice to his departing son, Laertes (Hunter Scott McNair). The problem with this scene so often is that, although we are supposed to understand that Polonius is boring and hypocritical, his advice is actually pretty sound. In order to make sense of the scene most Polonii add some grotesque overacting to make sure we get that he is a “bad guy.”
In this case, in a wonderful coup-de-theatre, Polonius delivered the advice straight but finished by casually handing his son a pistol. This striking moment, simple as it was, said everything needed about living in a time where the privileged are oppressors who somehow imagine themselves to be so disempowered that they must be armed at all times. The “advice” turned out to be window-dressing for appearing cultured while, in reality, retreating into ugly tribalism. Guns are the only thing that make anyone feel safe.
Something is wrong in this Denmark, and it is not just with Claudius. This is the most disaffected Hamlet I have ever seen, and the dysfunction is everywhere. Seconds before intermission, after an affecting soliloquy, Horatio enters and casually hands Hamlet a paper bag, from which he withdraws a handgun of his own. Everyone’s solution to everything is the uniquely American threat of violence.
This had interesting implications as Hamlet crept up on the praying Claudius and contemplated killing him. With a gun, rather than a sword, he was able to climb to some height on the set and stay far away from Claudius, yet still seem on the verge of murder. It was a simple solution, but rendered the moment the most realistically frightening I have ever seen it.
Even in the final scene, which must be (and was) about a fencing match, there was a stunning moment when Laertes removed his jacket only to reveal that he had a concealed carry underneath it. The fact that no one inside the play seemed to think any of this was the least bit odd made it more, not less, chilling.
The production is chocked full with effective choices, not always about guns. For example, Hamlet delivers one of his great soliloquies (“How all occasions do inform against me”) in a straightjacket as he is being shipped off to England for killing Polonius.
Throughout the production a recurrent prop is the production program, popping up at wonderfully meta-theatrical times, such as the moment that Hamlet asks his mother (played by Arwen Anderson) to look on a picture of his father.
Talia Friedenberg is an especially effective Ophelia, rendering the character with theatrical force rather than realistic (but out-of-place-in-verse-drama) histrionics. Her relationship to Laertes (Hunter Scott McNair, who also doubles terrifically as one of the visiting players) is clearer than I think I have ever seen it, as it is exceedingly complex from the moment she witnesses his accepting his father’s gun.
Too much of the discussion about this production is interested in the family dynamics of the father-son, director-star team. Nate Currier is a very good Hamlet, but given the number of really good Hamlets that the Bay Area has seen in the last two seasons (John Douglas Thompson at ACT, William J. Brown at the Arabian Shakespeare Festival, Nathaniel Andalis at the San Francisco Shakespeare Festival, Kate Eastwood Norris at the Santa Cruz Shakespeare Festival, and a full cast of rotating Hamlets at Shotgun Players) this is not enough to occupy our attention. The real reason to see this production is because Robert Currier’s direction has never been better, and because you leave understanding exactly why Shakespeare’s tragedy is timeless. Go. It plays two more weekends!
This review is of the Friday, May 25, 2018 performance
PS: This review was slow in posting for a simple, personal reason. This play, so laden with father-son images and discussions of death, was the first play I saw after the death of my own father in early May. It took me a while to face writing about it. What tragedy means in such an overwhelming circumstance is the subject of an upcoming post.
Hamlet – May 18 – July 8, 2018, By William Shakespeare / Directed by Robert Currier
Forest Meadows Amphitheatre at Dominican University of California, 890 Belle Avenue, San Rafael, CA 94901
Performances (in repertory) at 8 pm Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays; and 4 pm Sundays. See website (www.marinshakespeare.org) for specific repertory performance schedule.