Hamlet by William Shakespeare
a kate west review
directed by Brianna Lee Johnson
a Tall Blonde Productions and Hollywood Forever Production
at Hollywood Forever Cemetery, 6000 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood, CA 90038
running June 22 - July 29, 2007, most Fridays and Saturdays
contact http://shakespeareinthecemetery.com/; tix $20; free parking
Primarily the resting place of a host of late celebrities, the Hollywood Forever Cemetery also houses an outdoor summer film hot spot (http://www.cinespia.org). And now apparently it also offers up Shakespeare in the Park, or rather, in the Cemetery, the latest production being "Hamlet". "Hamlet", of course, is the famous Shakespearean play in which the late Danish King's son Hamlet spends five acts agonizing over how to avenge his father's death and rescue his mother from the clutches of her new husband, Hamlet's uncle, the cowardly villain responsible for murdering his father. For the two people who haven't seen or read about it, everyone ends up dead in the end and then the new order takes over and cleans up the town. And there are a lot of fun duels, scorned love and family angst in between.
In this production, Director Brianna Lee Johnson sets up the outdoor scene with some pre-show vignettes of Danish life in 1300 A.D. Various actors weave in and around the set, (complete with a stone pond), and although slightly annoying in its seeming aimlessness, it fits in more or less with the park atmosphere. The play finally opens (late) with the royal guards (Stephen Steelman, John Pick, etc.) establishing that the late King's ghost has been appearing mysteriously about Elsinore. After the play's initial build up, the subsequent appearance of the Ghost (Derek Long) is slightly disappointing, as the actor is a bit stiff, so to speak. In fact, the majority of the actors rush their lines, paying little heed to the subtle nuances of the Bard's poetic language.
A blond and earnest Dean Chekvala plays Hamlet, heir to the Denmark throne. He's not terrible, but suffers from the same superficiality as the rest of the cast, giving equal measure to each line and not delving into context. Also, it is often difficult to hear him, due to his tendency to rush. The plot unfolds fairly quickly; Hamlet swears vengeance on his uncle and tortures his long-suffering love, Ophelia (Sarah Utterback, of television's "Grey's Anatomy"). She also merely skims the surface of the role, indicating rather than portraying genuine emotion, especially in the "Get thee to a Nunnery" scene where Hamlet cruelly spurns her. Granted, that particular night, three raccoons came out of hiding and played in the pond, right in the front of the action, so the audience was distracted. Without animals, however, the actors still don't fully hold our attention.
Hamlet decides to begin acting mad, in order to confuse his family, begging the age old question of whether or not he's faking or actually becomes mad. The famous "To Be or Not To Be" speech supposedly conveys his unwillingness to take action and his frank reflections of death, but again, Chekvala rushes it, so it is virtually missed. The evil uncle, Claudius (York Griffith, also stiff), conspires with his new wife Gertrude (played with uninspiring shallowness by Katherine Brandt, also co-producer) to discover Hamlet's true character motivations. Things escalate until Hamlet is finally spurned to action, but kills the wrong man, murdering Polonious, his sweetheart's bumbling innocent old father.
To sum up briefly, Laertes (Zach Alden) returns from school abroad to avenge his sister's suicide and father's murder, Gertrude repents her hasty marriage much too late, Claudius is finally murdered, Gertrude poisoned and Laertes stabbed, after confessing the poison conspiracy to Hamlet, who naturally dies soon after.
Apparently her first foray into Bardland, the director really needed to push her actors more, especially since they expend so much energy projecting outdoors that all subtlety is lost. The sole actor who understands Shakespearean language at all is Sean Sellars, who plays Polonius, father to Ophelia and Laertes. His is a multi-dimensional, researched character, which provided much-needed, although brief comic relief. It is puzzling as to why Johnson cast a younger actor made up to look older, rather than just an older actor, however Sellars makes the part his own, and is a definite audience pleaser.
This must remain an unofficial review, however, since this reviewer did not stay past intermission. It may have very well turned into brilliance in the end, but it is highly doubtful. Although, there was a real pond for Ophelia to drown in and a real crypt for the actors to be backlit against. The actors did have a nice procession to it in the beginning. They had already demonstrated focusing action off to the side wall and elsewhere on the lawn. The Players who come in to act out Hamlet's pre-planned accusations, for instance, played against that wall, but then it was a bit difficult to look behind you and then back to the front of the stage. Everything seemed too far apart for comfort. But that was the least of the production's problems.
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Hamlet by William Shakespeare