When a young theatre company chooses a Shakespeare play for their season, the implicit message is usually “Hey, we can’t pay for rights and we need something with name recognition…please don’t expect too much out of us because we’re young and this classical stuff is really hard.” Design elements are cheap or nonexistent and the acting is usually passionate, but incomprehensible. Unless the play is a dear friend, you usually leave the tiny—sorry, “intimate"—black box space two hours older and more confused than when you entered.
So experience would tell me Do It Live!’s current production of Hamlet is a travesty considering all of the factors. Not only is the company of SFSU alums new to the scene, they’ve selected one of the most powerful and difficult plays (as well as, arguably, the crowning achievement of Western literature) ever written. Not only are they attempting Hamlet, they are working from the infamous 1603 “bad” quarto, where “to be or not to be” is not a “question,” but rather “the point.” On top of all this, the set consists of a bare stage, three chairs, a costume rack, and two small wooden boxes.
In the hands of many young directors, this would be a recipe for disaster.
However, director Jeremy Forbing manages to craft a night of theatre that is clear, engaging, and thoroughly entertaining.
The real title of the show is Bad Hamlet. Do It Live! focuses on the bootleg quality of this much-maligned copy, probably hobbled together from the brains of some bribed actors. This “pirated” copy hit the streets a year before the more recognizable version was published in 1604. The characters we know as Polonius, Rosencrantz, and Guildenstern are named Corambis, Rossencraft, and Gilderstone in this copy, and many of the famous lines occur here as bizarre paraphrases. Scholars of the past thought that the differences between the 1603 Quarto and later “good” versions were the result of faulty memories of actors who played minor roles in Shakespeare’s premier production.
Modern academia has reexamined the Quarto and found that it might not just be a curious facsimile of one of the best plays of all time. Many of the irregularities still ring as Shakespearean. This shorter, more concise version of Hamlet could easily be a first draft, or even a “touring” revision for productions outside of the big city. So it seems like this “bastard” Quarto is at least Shakespeare’s bastard.
For Do It Live!, the decision to do the “bad” Quarto makes some sense. It’s shorter, fewer actors are needed, and the basic plot stays the same. Plus, the different styling of much of the dialogue allows for some new insight into this well-worn play. However, the actual reason for choosing this version over others is not made very clear in the production. Bad Hamlet is not essentially that different from normal (good?) Hamlet. Besides providing a few laughs (I giggled anytime someone mentioned Rossencraft and Gilderstone), this version doesn’t thrust the play in an entirely new light as much as I think the company wants it to.
Regardless, this is a very fine, if stripped-down, production of a magnificent play.
Perhaps the most obvious task for the actors in a Shakespearean tragedy, but also one of the most difficult yet most essential for a successful production, is reciting the Bard’s lines in a way that makes intellectual and visceral sense for an audience. Without this, not only are the characters unconvincing, but the entire show quickly becomes a muddy quagmire of fancy language. Do It Live! avoids this issue with aplomb. The entire cast understands and transmits this play. They are clear, concise, and effective. If you were completely unfamiliar with Hamlet, you’d leave the theatre knowing the story. Simple as that sounds on paper, that is a monumental achievement for any company, especially one with a budget under a million dollars.
Sean Owens’s Corambis is great, injecting much needed humor into this bleak scenario. Rik Lopes gives a passionate performance as Claudius and Tamara Leigh Miller is icy as Queen Gertred. Ben Landmesser switches between Leartes and Horatio but is still able to pull off the most nuanced performance in the production. Shay Wisniewski’s Ofelia is a weak spot, seeming more cardboard compared to the livelier performances. Kenny Toll’s Hamlet carries the show, but there are several times he obviously revels in the character’s complexity as opposed to pushing the show forward. He, therefore, reads as occasionally false, like when he turns over two chairs during the first lines of his opening speech. These missteps never drag down the show too far, though.
Neither do several ill-advised choices by Forbing, including making one minor role a surfer dude and focusing a lot of attention on a costume rack that is rarely used. The modern costumes, stark set, and uncolored lighting design are simple, utilitarian, and effective.
The title Bad Hamlet thankfully doesn’t describe this production’s quality. The show proves Do It Live! has the talent and ability to do Shakespeare. More than that, they can even do Shakespeare well.