A Slice of Ham(let)

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Jeremiah Clapp as Hamlet. Photo: T. Rick Jones

Every year – the last 4 years, that is, since I moved back to New England – I take a wander down the road to Wilcox Park in Westerly, Rhode Island, to attend Shakespeare in the Park. This year, the 25th anniversary of the program, they staged Hamlet. I have a few thoughts about the production.

If you’d like to read last year’s review (Henry V), click here.

It was good to see two familiar faces in key roles. First, Ed Franklin, who has been appearing in Westerly Shakespeare in the Park productions going all the way back, as Polonius. I’ve seen him in Henry V and The Taming of the Shrew, and his work has always satisfied. Often Polonius is played with a wink, the “see what an old buffoon I am” approach, but Franklin plays him earnest and straight. Polonius does not know that others find him fatuous and dull; the audience can figure it out without trouble.

Second, Paul Romero as King Claudius. I had seen him before in The Taming of the Shrew, and in The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged), and he was broad and dominant in both. As Claudius, Romero gets the chance to bring something different to the King – that is, a certain lack of kingliness. Romero’s Claudius is just a step or two away from losing all control of the situation. He drinks a lot, and though that detail is not over-stressed, you feel that he is drinking to keep a handle on his own feelings. Claudius has what he wanted – whether that was the throne, the Queen, or both – and has little or no idea how to keep what he has. This approach added welcome depth to the story.

Jeremiah Clapp as Hamlet left me feeling conflicted. He has the ability, and can deliver complex speeches with clarity, but he does not touch the subtlety needed to span Hamlet’s saner and madder moments. In the “Alas, poor Yorick” speech he does tone his delivery down, making it the most effective of Hamlet’s speeches in the play. I could have done with less of Clapp’s over-emphatic delivery, shouting when shouts are not needed. His displays of madness are heavily turned toward the comic, with funny walks and grimaces that are aimed at the audience in the park, not the other characters.

Catherine Dupont does a fine job (in her Westerly debut) as Ophelia. Her mad scene is a highlight, including a favorite trick of these productions, when she wanders into the crowd, handing out leaves Ophelia thinks are flowers. Marion Markham as Queen Gertrude made little impression, seeming awkward in her costume and bland in character: contemporary productions sometimes hint at an incestuous relationship between Hamlet and his mother, and I think the producers were wise to skip that here. The other supporting players were pretty good; I’ll spare one actor, who played three or four roles, by not singling out his at times stumbling delivery – at any rate I won’t name him. The Ghost was a disembodied voice, heavily echoed.

It’s always interesting to see how the text is presented – see the section on the Text of Hamlet at Wikipedia for details on that. In this production the final scene (Act 5, Scene 2) is truncated: Fortinbras and the English ambassadors do not appear to wrap everything up. Similarly, Fortinbras’ first appearance (Act 4, Scene 4) is also omitted. I have not consulted the play, but it felt like the scene in which Hamlet auditions the Players (Act 2, Scene 2) went on longer than usual. Perhaps that was just me.

Director Harland Meltzer made what use he could of a rather limited stage, painted in red with eagles and iron crosses suggesting a Germanic setting. The characters were costumed in a pre-WW2 fashion, perhaps 1920s or 30s. The military uniforms looked French, perhaps from WW1.

Shakespeare in the Park is produced by the Colonial Theater, in Westerly, and I hope that 25 years and more of this summer tradition are to come.

 

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