Reviewed by Will Stackman
For its 10th Anniversary free outdoor production, Commonwealth Shakespeare, in collusion with the Wang Center is presenting "Hamlet" outdoors on the Boston Common for three weeks. This summer's extravaganza has been moved from the Parkman Bandstand area to the arid slope of the former parade ground near the corner of Beacon and Charles Sts. Director Stephen Maler has assembled an effective cast, many of whom have appeared for CSC in the past. His leading man, Jeffrey Donovan, has to work hard to keep up with the likes of Frontline narrator Will Lyman as Claudius and ART regular Karen MacDonald as Gertrude, whose depth of experience is clearly evident. Donovan, who came to notice last year as the lead in the USA Network adaptation of "Touching Evil," does well enough considering his minimal classical acting credits. At times, however, his readings seem to be on autopilot. He soldiers on, as does this rest of this generally excellent cast, despite Maler's magpie inspirations, many of which involve a shallow moat at the front of the stage.
The nadir of his directorial cleverness comes in the "fishmonger" scene with Polonius, played by a overly stentorian Sam Weisman. Hamlet appears in an early 20th century one-piece bathing costume paddling about on a fluorescent green inflatable raft. Later, as the play approaches its climax, while the Queen details Ophelia's drowning, Georgia Hatzis, perhaps miscast as a love-struck ingenue, is squatting in the water on the opposite side of the stage, playing with scraps of paper torn from what appears to be a bible, instead of flowers. When Gertrude's devastating solioquy is over, Ophelia splashes across the stage and drowns herself in the one deep part of this forestage puddle. Publick Theatre and Wellesley Summer Theatre veteran, Richard La France, who plays the family retainer Reynaldo, then has to wade in and fish her out, finally carrying the dripping body offstage by himself. The tendency to over-objectify moments which the author wisely left to imagination has been the biggest failing in Commonwealth's approach since its beginning.
The rest of Leiko Fuseya's architectural set is another Futurist-inspired geometrical frame for the action. A dozen or so young actors, many who are understudying the major roles, dutifully move furniture on and off the essentially bare stage, including Gertrude's fourposter, whose back curtain serves as the fatal arras, and a white grand piano, on which Ophelia and Polonius play during their first scene. This last motif is echoed when Ophelia lugs a white toy piano onstage instead of flowers for her mad scene. There's also a balcony high above, reached by a curved staircase stage right, which is effective as the battlements at the opening, but is too far above the stage otherwise. This perch is fronted by white plexiglas and supported in the center by a pillar which reaches from the stage floor to the lighting grid, which lights up to form a giant illuminated crucifix behind Claudius' attempted prayer. The height does allow the play-within-the-play to be done by actors inside giant puppets, who perform a condensation of the dumbshow and the verse while being trundled around the stage. This ART-inspired effort approaches absurdity, seeming outside even this production's scattershot conventions, and in direct contradiction to Hamlet's famous "advice to the players." Indeed, that scene is starts with the Prince sitting in a director's chair--with his name on it--shouting through a megaphone.
Award-winning Boston actor Jeremiah Kissell, who triples as the Ghost, the Player King, and the First Gravedigger survives the challenge of playing "The Mousetrap" while standing on a rolling warehouse ladder inside a puppet. He also performs old King Hamlet's Ghost wearing kothurni--another ART speciality--using support canes which allow him to spread his shroud ominously. The description of the dead King in full armor remains in the dialogue, however. Fortunately, for his speech as the Player King, Kissel gets to sit downstage center and exercise considerable vocal skill while Jacqui Parker as the Player Queen, here Hecuba, and other members of his troupe discretely mime the action. After the antics above, the First Gravedigger's offhand comedy is a snap, and a welcome relief to all concerned. One of the above mentioned ladders gives Hamlet something to cavort with in the scene which follows as he exalts from his success.
Other important named characters, such as Pedro Pascal's Horatio, John Kuntz' Guildenstern and Osric, Darius William's Fortinbras and Bernardo--a potential source of confusion for the uninitiated--and John Kooi's Rosencrantz are rather simply drawn. Horatio is only used when absolutely needed and seems too much in the Prince's shadow, hardly more important than R & G who are played very straight-forwardly. Osric is the usual dandy but too inconspicuous during the duel to actually function as the referee. William's and some "Norwegian" troops are frozen downstage while Hamlet performs his last great solioquy--another unnecessary objectification. They're also carrying AK47's. Up-to-date guns are a pointless distraction from the first scene on in this production. It might have been better to switch the actors playing Bernardo and Francisco in the opening--the latter is ART student Jonah Mitropolous; have sturdy John Porell play only Marcellus and wield a sabre rather than a pistol; and give Fortinbras' Captain's few lines to one of the underused members of the ensemble. Jeff Gill, last year's Antonio, was a good choice for the ambassador Voltemand and the Priest and performs with dispatch. Last but not least, of course, is CSC regularJonno Roberts, recently seen on Broadway in "Take Me Out", playing Laertes. He might actually have been a better choice for the lead, even if that meant pairing him again with his wife as in last summer's "Much Ado.." Hatzis, try as she might, comes off this summer as Laertes' older sister, an interesting if unintended interpretation.
Technically, the new fit up hasn't changed much from previous seasons, though brushed aluminum trusses go better with this year's set. Linda O'Brien's lighting comes into focus once night falls, though some sort of shadow for the Ghost in the battlement scenes might make the eventual appearance less garish. J Hagenbuckle's sound design is appropriately ominous, but perhaps too obvious. Clint Ramos's slightly Continental modern dress does little for the show, but doesn't get in the way. Both Donovan and Roberts are convincing in the climatic duel under Trinity's fight choreographer, Craig Handel's expert direction. If only Hamlet and a few others were given swords earlier, the scene might seem less of a stunt. The swearing scene in the beginning is a bit ludicrous when the Prince is waving a short hunting knife fished from his schoolbag. The new location on the Parade Ground--actually sod on top of a garage beneath-- means that all the audience is on the same plane which slopes, with the high side stage left rather than farther from the stage. There's almost no sense of a defined theatrical space. There is less echo away from the tall buildings on Tremont street, but now street noises come from stage right and backstage, which is more hidden than previously. The situation with jet noises from Boston's convenient Logan Airport remains as unpredictable as ever. Unfortunately, the direction, which again tries to manufacture interpretation from traffic management, isn't.