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Big Upset in a Hamlet for the Moment Hot

Denise Battista
Written by Denise Battista     March 05, 2010    
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Big Upset in a Hamlet for the Moment

Photos: David Cooper and Jenny Graham

  • Hamlet
  • by William Shakespeare
  • Oregon Shakespeare Festival
  • February 26 - October 30, 2010
Acting 3
Costumes 3
Sets 5
Directing 2
Overall 3

Do you remember that scene from the movie, Big, with Tom Hanks? The one where Josh (Hanks) sits in on a focus group about a new toy:

Josh: I don’t get it.

Paul: What exactly don’t you get?

Josh: It turns from a building into a robot, right?

Paul: Precisely.

Josh: Well, what’s fun about that?

Paul: Well, if you had read your industry breakdown, you would see that our success in the action figure area has climbed from twenty-seven percent to forty-five percent in the last two years. There, that might help.

Josh: Oh.

Paul: Yes?

Josh: I still don’t get it.

I feel like Bill Rauch needs a focus group filled with people like Josh.

Hamlet is a big play. Hamlet is a big character. We all know the story to some degree and we’ve all heard the lines in common use, whether we track them to Shakespeare or not. I commend Rauch for being bold. In 2008, he brought ancient Sanskrit theatre to the stage as he directed audiences to the non-Western world of Clay Cart, and in 2009, Rauch took a huge risk when he adapted and directed OSF’s first full-on musical (Music Man). Darn good show; darn good time. Great, even.

But his Hamlet?

I don’t get it.

During my recent interview with this play’s Hamlet, Dan Donohue made the very real statement that in order to play the prince, he must break the role up into its separate parts:

Right now I only see the parts—one moment at a time—and if I think about it as a whole at this stage, I feel consumed with fear because if I think ahead, “Oh I’ve got that nunnery scene coming up…” I’m like “Ohhhhhh! Don’t think about that!” It has to be moment by moment by moment, otherwise I sort of go mad…

I get this, and it’s a terrific way to do what Hamlet can’t seem to do until the final Act: live and thus act in the present. But the production as a whole seems to rely on this technique, and what we get is something that lacks cohesion. I don’t think it’s Dan Donohue’s fault, at least insofar as his acting ability; rather, it seems a matter to take up with the director, or in this case directors, as Rauch claims this production is a 50/50 directorial collaboration between him and Donohue.

In a production made up of moments, we get the gamut of not good to very good. Deborah M. Dryden’s modern dress costume design is unremarkable, while Christopher Acebo’s set design wows across the board (Acebo also designed the set for this season’s must see opener, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, directed by Christopher Liam Moore). The stage looks a bit askew—awry, if you will—and filled with shadows and corners. Hidden partitions extend from the backdrop during the play to create rooms and hiding places, while surveillance cameras look on from above. The most telling piece of work in Acebo’s set design is the wall standing stage left, complete with bars and barbed wire to reinforce that this Denmark is, indeed, a prison.

A stone wall backdrop takes the audience inside and outside the walls of Elsinore castle with Christopher Akerlind’s seamless and at times haunting lighting design. I only wish Rauch would have turned to Akerlind instead of William Cusick’s overly techie and terribly distracting projections when representing a larger than life fade in and out of the Ghost. In this case, Howie Seago, the actor who plays the ghostly Hamlet Sr., would have made much more of an impact during his haunting than the flashy projections and fuzzy fade outs.

Aside from the techie stuff and the bizarre GI Joe fatigues that weigh Seago down in the beginning of the show, casting Seago as the Ghost is genius. Howie Seago is deaf and, in this production, he speaks his words through his hands, with Donohue translating what is necessary along the way. This father/son relationship is gripping, intimate, and introduces a level of understanding and closeness between these two Hamlets that trumps any production I’ve seen before, stage or screen. And Seago’s Ghost remains a powerful presence even when offstage, with Donohue grasping his memories with intermittent episodes of signing throughout the play.

It’s apparent that this Hamlet is an isolated prince. The production begins before the proverbial curtain, which is a theme this season, as all the shows begin with some sort of action on the stage prior to the play’s actual start. This offers a prologue, of sorts, with an added scene of what happens in Hamlet’s universe before Shakespeare’s play begins. Well done.

But then we have to start defining things. The who’s, the why’s, and the what’s. We get that Hamlet’s in mourning, although Donohue could easily liaison as a secret service agent in his current state of dress. But what about Horatio? I found myself asking my own, “Who’s there?” as Horatio, played by Armando Durán, comes into the scene, only recognizable by his lines. He seems more early 1970’s Vietnam veteran than Wittenburg scholar, and he’s erratically physical, cloudy and barely present enough to seem important. But in this production, Horatio is not the orator, and for some reason he is not trusted to tell Hamlet’s story.

I don’t get it.

Jeffrey King as Claudius is vulgar and pompous and doesn’t even try to toss on a facade of care and kingship. He seems like a rich brat who had his glory days back in college, and now he just drinks and has ski weekends and I’m not all too sure why, but he attempts to murder Laertes a couple of times, perhaps the purpose lying in the gasps of audience reaction. Maybe Rauch just wants to make sure we absolutely despise Claudius, because the reasons Shakespeare gives us—murdering his brother, marrying his brother’s wife, and attempting to murder Hamlet—just don’t cut the mustard. His own soliloquy is defeated by setting it in the bathroom, King's final words spoken while sitting on the pot. Okay, his offense is rank. Okay, it smells to high heaven. Must we be literal?

I don’t get it.

Greta Oglesby plays the part of Gertrude, and I mean that she absolutely plays the part. It’s apparent this is an actress playing a role and thus it’s just plain boring. The bedroom scene adds intrigue, however, but the purpose is left dangling in the wind of an idea. What are the implications of Gertrude actually seeing the Ghost of her dead husband during this scene? It’s an interesting idea, but Rauch doesn’t apply any effect to this cause. Are we supposed to suppose Gertrude is a conspirator to her husband’s murder? Are we supposed to hate her, too?

I don’t get it.

What I do get is the touching and beautiful relationship between brother and sister team Laertes and Ophelia, played by David DeSantos and Susannah Flood, respectively. They are playful and loving and you’ll get that each cares about the other—a crucial aspect in this play if we’re to feel our heartstrings pull if not yank during Ophelia’s mad scene, as in this production, the Hamlet/Ophelia love affair is not all too clear. Why did you cut a line from Hamlet’s love poem to Ophelia, and why does Ophelia seem so flippant about the whole thing?

I don’t get it.

The best part of this production is this family trio, led by Richard Elmore’s perfect presentation of Polonius. He plays the role in a traditional manner and stands out from the rest of the very non-traditional cast. Blathering on at some point about the sun and the moon, day and night, but never deemed the fool. He doesn’t have much control over his daughter, as this Ophelia resists and talks back, preferring to garden in her jeans, flannel shirt and rubber boots versus obey her father. I don’t get why Ophelia’s wardrobe markedly improves with her madness, mirroring the black suit and shades of the mourning Hamlet, but direction is not at all in question as Oglesby, in muddied dress, retells the drowning of the fair Ophelia. Like a well-choreographed spirit, under the direction of this show’s choreographer, Rokafella, Flood washes into the scene and creates a magnificent dumb show of her own death.

I like that Donohue does his “To be or not to be” soliloquy as a true soliloquy, but Rauch relies on technology once again and wires Ophelia as Claudius and Polonius listen in FBI style. But the part I don’t get is why Hamlet is so angry at Ophelia when she reveals she’s been bugged. And then if he’s going to feel so angry and betrayed, why is Ophelia so surprised that Hamlet would be upset? It seems everyone knows too much to be so shocked all the time.

The ever-important Yorick moment is… well… I don’t get it. Gravediggers one (Bill Geisslinger) and two, played with amazing timing by the fabulous Josiah Phillips, are entertaining, although Geisslinger needs to slow down on delivery if he wants his jokes to pack a punch. Donohue and Geisslinger have great rapport, but when Donohue recalls his memories of Yorick and speaks those poignant words about death and the inevitable, the scene lacks conviction and understanding. Donohue doesn’t even look into the face of this emblem of death. This is a pivotal moment in the play, and without it, how is Hamlet supposed to turn and act. The epiphany is lost.

And ohhhhh my, I do not get the Players.

Rauch takes one hundred percent responsibility for turning the players into DJ rap star dancers with lots of pimp bling, flash and pizzazz, fit for the club scene I tend to avoid. As a result, Hecuba is lost. The play within the play is lost. Both lost in the too-loud raping/dancing/glittering interpretation of these ever-important scenes. The words are gone. Lost is Hamlet’s ideal vision of women in these scenes, and thus lost is the opposing view of what he sees in Gertrude and in effect, Ophelia. Lost is any cause to his affect.

While U. Jonathan Toppo’s fight direction is exciting and well-executed by Donohue and DeSantos, the final nail in this coffin is Hamlet’s death scene. It’s emotional, or should be. He is dying, or should be. We want to care. We want to cry, even, but how can we when Hamlet interrupts his own death scene by standing up and adding a freeze frame soliloquy to Shakespeare’s perfect seven before going back to finish dying? No matter if what Donohue relays is important to Rauch’s interpretation of the play, there has got to be a better way to get this information across.

I don’t get it.

Like so much else in this show that has all the makings of something big, this production of Hamlet is best left in silence.

Hamlet runs February 26 – October 30, 2010 at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Angus Bowmer Theatre, 15 S. Pioneer Street, Ashland, OR 97520. Information can be found at


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