"Truly man is a marvellously vain, diverse, and undulating object.
It is hard to found any constant and uniform judgement on him."
— Michel de Montaigne
Dallas — Everybody has a version of Hamlet they prefer, even people who haven’t seen it. It is one of the most performed of Shakespeare plays and lives on in the modern zeitgeist in The Lion King, Sons of Anarchy, and Something’s Rotten. Hamlet is Shakespeare Dallas’ inaugural production of its first indoor season at Moody Performance Hall and runs through Jan. 20.
Hamlet is sometimes referred to as “Poem Unlimited” because of the vastness of the play. Not only is it Shakespeare’s longest play (though cut to a lean two-and-a-half hours in Shakespeare Dallas’ production) it is also his most elusive. Is Hamlet’s erratic behavior due to his father’s death and mother’s “o’erhasty marriage” to his uncle? His relationship with Ophelia? Or his indecision in avenging his father’s murder? Directors have a lot of options because as Ismail Kadare writes “at each new level of depth, the end cracks open only to reveal yet more cavernous space” or said another way: there is plenty of room to maneuver in Hamlet. Critic William Hazlitt said, “it is we ourselves who are Hamlet,” meaning that each of us finds a part of both the character and the play that we relate to, but also that escapes our awareness—how much is our own nature truly evident to us?
So what to do with all that in terms of a production? Shakespeare Dallas makes the most of that question of how best to reveal ourselves through a use of parallels, using the mirror image of relationships between the different characters of the play.
The most poignant is the use of Ethan Norris in the role of Claudius and Hamlet Sr.’s ghost. In both characters, he prods a character to seek his revenge. In the role of Hamlet Sr.’s ghost, he commands Hamlet Jr. avenge his “most foul” murder by his brother Claudius. In the Claudius role, he encourages Laertes to poison Hamlet Jr. because of his murder of Laertes’ father, Polonius.
I wonder a bit about the choice in the technical direction for the Ghost, however. The L.E.D. lights on the headgear (a fencing mask) meant to illuminate the ghosts “pale face” coupled with his “solemn march,” while true to the text, come off looking more like a ghost robot. After performing outdoors for so long, I am sure that the production team has had many a technical itch to scratch. So, I can understand the desire for more elaborate lighting, sound effects and cranking the smoke machine to 11. But when a technical aspect of a play becomes distracting rather than complementary, it doesn’t fit in the production. The amplification of the Ghost’s voice is a fine addition (the only mic used in the play, a testament to the actors’ abilities considering the expansiveness of the theater) as are other aspects of sound design by Marco Salinas, such as the pointed sound and music effects between scenes. This works well with the lighting design by Michael Sullivan, especially the large backdrop that adds both a dramatic effect as well as necessary scene/tone changes since there is no major change to the set throughout the production aside from some props (designed by Cindy Ernst Godinez), chairs, and the Gravedigger’s grave.
But we were talking about mirroring. One of the subtle touches is T.A. Taylor playing Polonius and one of the gravediggers with little aside from a slight costume change to differentiate the characters. This works not only because Mr. Taylor’s admirable command of supporting characters (his Marcus Andronicus in Shakespeare Dallas’ 2017 season was one of the most grippingly tragic performances I have seen), but also because it is partly Polonius’ fault that his daughter commits suicide. So, it is fitting that he should be the one that digs her grave, even if it is technically another character. Similar is the casting of Anthony L. Ramirez as a the existentially comic Gravedigger and Fortinbras. Harold Bloom calls this gravedigger Hamlet’s “only worthy interlocutor” in the play. This is due to his absolutism and strict interpretation of meaning as opposed to the prince’s constant waffling. I would submit that Fortinbras is the other character that shows the greatest positivist contrast to Hamlet, as he is who Hamlet wants to be: a decisive, military adept success—like a young Hamlet Sr. would have been.
We also find an interesting doubling of the casting with Shawn Gann as Marcellus/Guildenstern and Jeremiah Johnson as Bernardo/Rosencrantz. In both roles, they are charged with protecting Denmark, as the soldiers Marcellus and Bernardo from threats without and as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern from threats within (aka Hamlet). These are both skilled comedic actors, readily on display in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, but capably provide the stolid presence required of the guards as well.
The last two pairings to mention are Hamlet/Laertes and Ophelia/Gertrude. These intertwine quite a bit, especially with regards to what was my favorite part of this production. Hamlet is oft-performed, and due to its length is almost always cut nearly in half. This leaves the Shakespeare devotees (and self-proclaimed Shakespeare aficionados) with their favorite parts of the play on the cutting room floor. For me it is the scene with Polonius tasking Reynaldo with both spying and conducting a disinformation campaign against his son in Laertes in France—a fascinating scene that adds depth to Polonius’ character and a nod towards to the level of political intrigue in the play (Little Finger from Game of Thrones would last all of about 15 minutes in Elsinore; Varys would be allowed to take minutes at meetings).
My point was about the needs of the devoted Shakespeare fan and the newcomer. In a way, producing a streamlined Hamlet is like a French restaurant serving steak frites in that a lot of people like steak frites. While your devoted Franco-gastronome wants to see langue de boeuf and tête de veau on the menu, crowds aren’t banging down the door to try those (the Timon of Athens and King John of French cuisine). So how do you make a streamlined Hamlet enjoyable for the (few) folks who want the full five-hour version and still appeal to a broad audience? You do what Raphael Parry does so adeptly in this production and add the subtlest of touches to the character interactions and Ophelia’s costuming.
The first thing you notice is just a touch: Connie Parry’s Gertrude walking by Seth Magill’s Hamlet and just touching his stomach in Act I, Scene 2. It makes you pause and think “that’s not a mother’s touch”. And then the repeat in the scene in Gertrude’s bedchamber as Hamlet is entranced by the Ghost and she rubs his legs and chest. It all stays on just this side of “something creepy in the state of Denmark,” but only just. Another, and the most impressive, example is when the Player King (played by Mark Oristano) retires after the end of the play-within-a-play. Hamlet pulls a wad of cash out of his back pocket and holds it up to the Player King, who gives him a look of profound empathy, seeing a most kindred soul, embraces him and walks off without the money. Add this to Anthony Ramirez’ reaction—a pointed chuckle—when the King storms off the stage, and what do you have? You have a Rorschach test for the audience and the depth of character development that Hamlet requires but which is so difficult to pull off in a trimmed down Hamlet.
Another of those subtle touches (and back to mirror images): Stephanie Cleghorn Jasso’s Ophelia and Constance Gold Parry’s Gertrude. First a significant nod to costume designer Korey Kent. I don’t want to spoil it, but there is lovely detail in Ophelia’s costuming as the play progresses. Ask yourself while you are watching “what does the nature versus conscious choice have to do with our actions” and look at her dresses. Then wonder about the change in Ophelia as the play progresses. First, observe the range on display by Ms. Jasso, from the sweet and playful daughter in Act 1, Scene 3 to the complex lover when she is being assaulted by Hamlet, to her final choice in this life (and how that differs from Hamlet’s words). And what a fascinating touch is the final scene with Gertrude. Again, telling you too much would spoil it, but her Ms. Parry’s conscious choice in her final scene mirrors Ophelia exactly and gives us the depths we require from the play.
The last of these parallels is Hamlet and Laertes. This is another one of the details that Parry draws out in his script cuts and casting. What distinct yet intertwined countertypes we have with these two characters! Laertes is a dutiful son, a loving brother, and a man whose immediate instinct when wronged is action, consequences be damned. While it is by no means a big role in terms of lines, in the hands of actor Robby Gemaehlich, it has all the depths upon depths that Kadare so eloquently posits.
As for the title character, one school of thought is that Hamlet is seven soliloquies. I think that’s what the Shakespeare aficionados tell themselves. I often come back to Schopenhaur’s “you can change what you do, but you can’t change what you want” when I think about Hamlet. So, what does Hamlet do in this play, and what does he say he wants? What of his lines is in earnest and when is he putting on “an antic disposition”? Part of what fascinates us about the play Hamlet is that we don’t really know. Dig into the soliloquies as much as you want; I don’t think you can tell me what Hamlet wants. This is the challenge for any actor, especially since we have all seen this before in some form or another. Or maybe we just throw up our hands and agree with Edmund Wilson and Vladimir Nabokov: we only like this play because it’s about a rich, royal family and murder.
I adored Magill’s Hamlet once he was in “antic disposition” mode. From the time he’s reading his book (what I hope is Montaigne) to his death, Magill is pitch-perfect in his swings from “mad prince” to mad lover to raging son to peacemaker to avenger. His duality as tragic and comic figure (what Bloom talks about when he says that Hamlet is both Falstaff and Hal) is wonderfully presented by Magill. And I think this may be the difficulty in seeing it for the 20th or 100th time: You think you know who Hamlet is when he says, “a little more than kin and less than kind,” but Hamlet doesn’t…yet.
Perhaps that’s the key to enjoying Hamlet: don’t come into it thinking you know him, or thinking you’ve seen it before or you’ll miss the touch on the stomach, the embrace of the Player King, Tony’s laugh, or Gertrude’s choice. Don’t give the play or its characters boundaries as “there are more things in heaven and earth...than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”