Hamlet is the tragedy of a young man; a student, in fact, who attends school in Wittenberg. And yet, in the professional world, the Danish prince is usually played by someone older. That is why it is refreshing to see student productions of Hamlet; here, at least, the brooding one is really a beardless youth.
Mask and Bauble’s production of Hamlet at Georgetown University embodies both what is good and bad about non-professional theater. The actors are all endearingly earnest; it is clear that blood, sweat and tears have been poured into their production. And it really is their production; students are responsible for all facets of the show. In fact, Mask and Bauble prides itself, according to a press release, on “being the oldest continually running student theatrical society in the United States.” So the students have heart, even if some of the emoting is, shall we say, unconvincing.
On the other hand, some of the acting is a pleasant surprise. Sarah Taurchini is charming and thoughtful as Ophelia, and her descent into madness is definitely watchable. John Maurer as Polonius is truly amusing as the well-meaning advisor who never knows when to shut up. But, of course, most of the focus lands on Hamlet, the longest role in Shakespeare. Here the honor (and the burden) falls to Matt MacNelly. MacNelly is a natural performer and the type of actor who will get cast as the boyish romantic lead forever. Perhaps predictably, he fares best in scenes with Ophelia.The tormented lovers, both dewy and beautiful, are stirring as they attract and repel each other. MacNelly also does crazy well, but is less convincing in his famous soliloquies. He shouts and shouts and his speeches sound the same after awhile. Lucky for MacNelly, he is inherently likeable onstage, and thus gets away with a lot.
The real problem of the evening is Seamus Sullivan's direction. I left the theater without a clear idea of any directorial vision. And, indeed, the dramaturg’s note states that those involved were wary both of recreating the Hamlet of the past and of over-modernizing the play. The production takes a sort of vague, unadorned middle ground, and the result lacks something. It somehow isn’t enough to simply stand the actors on the stage and let the text do all the work.Theater is a visual medium, and lacking amazingly electrifying actors, we need something more decisive and creative to hold our attention. Instead, we get mostly uninspired staging. The actors spend far too much time planted center stage talking at each other. Actors are so much more interesting when employed in some kind of physical business onstage, and here the action lags because everybody is just standing around. Indecision is, of course, what Hamlet is all about, but there has got to be a way to make ambivalence more exciting.
The production could use a jolt of energy from the designers, but sadly their contribution is minimal. The sound design (Michael Costa) is very simple; there are maybe ten cues the entire show, and the silence does the actors no favors. The lighting design (Lauren Cucarola) is similarly spare; the ghost is spookily lit, but the innovation stops there. Aliyah Bhatia has designed a basic set, consisting of a bench, two chairs, and a couple of ledges. Blue stars are painted on the bench, making it look vaguely like a flag. The set, perhaps in keeping with the dramaturg’s note, does not evoke a particular time or place. The result is unfortunately not timeless, but bland.
Caitlin Kelly's costume design is more exciting, and shows a touch of creativity lacking elsewhere. The characters are all in modern dress (is there anything else these days?) with an admirable choice in footwear. The ladies wear pastel high heels, and Horatio (Marjory Collado) marches around in a flamboyant pair of mustard-colored shoes. Hamlet is in black except for a pink tie, perhaps meant to visually link him with a similarly hued Gertrude (Olivia Bennett). His sneakers, retro Chucks, are cute but obviously never worn. My favorite costume belongs to Laertes (a baby-faced Derick Stace-Naughton), who is clad in ultra-preppy gear, cap-a-pie. (And, believe me, Georgetown students know how to do preppy.) In his popped collar, artfully untucked polo shirt, and tasseled loafers, he is a glorious sight to behold.
Although the production is flawed, I found myself wanting to overlook the deficiencies. The Shakespeare Theatre did a version of Hamlet a few months ago, and I could not help but compare the two productions in my mind. The Shakespeare Theatre certainly has more resources, experience, vision and talent. And yet, that production failed to capture my emotion. Mask and Bauble’s meager little Hamlet, however imperfect, does have a couple of flashes of something heartfelt: Hamlet caressing Ophelia’s stomach, Polonius sweetly smoothing his son’s shirt, and Horatio playfully bopping his schoolboy pal with a newspaper. If nothing else, we get the sense that these people truly care about each other, which in effect, takes care of their play.