Tough Day at the Theater, or
"I'm glad I didn't make attendance part of the curriculum."

Spent yesterday afternoon on campus at the final performance of the student production of Hamlet, or as Amy calls it, HAMlet. There's no getting around it--the performance really was horrible, even by student production standards, with which I have a fair amount of experience (by which I mean I've seen about ten productions, although this is my first FAU experience).

First, the good, and there was some to be had in this production. The director took a nice risk by casting Horatio and Guilderstern as women, as well as many of the other secondary military characters. It helped that Horatio could act, and a very minor tweaking of the lines (largely pronoun changes) gave this production a bit more of a heterosexual charge, since Hamlet's manly friendships were transformed into more casual sexual relationships. In short, Hamlet came off as a bit of a slut, which was a nice twist.

Then the bad. Where to begin? The lead actor was in over his head--he emoted, he moaned, he screamed, at times he howled his lines as though he'd been stricken by the full moon and was being transformed. What he didn't do was act. And when, during his breakup scene with Ophelia, he hurled her to the ground, pulled her hair and ground his crotch into her from behind, it became clear that this was not Hamlet being portrayed, this was an imitation of Mel Gibson (who was imitating his own Lethal Weapon character) taken to a ludicrous extreme. It's not prudery that caused me to recoil from that scene--it's that there's no justification for it in the text. At least when Hamlet seems to rape his mother in Zeffirelli's film (and in this production), there's an argument to be made that it happens (not a firm one in my book, but one to be made). But there's no such flimsy justification for the Ophelia scene. In fact, there's good reason to argue against it--Claudius and Polonius are in hiding, watching the action. When Hamlet attacks Gertrude, Polonius cries out and dies as a result. Surely Polonius and Claudius would have restrained a mad Hamlet from harming Ophelia.

Speaking of imitators, the actress playing Ophelia obviously got her inspiration from the same film, as she was trying mightily to channel Helena Bonham Carter. Her imitation wasn't quite as bad, for two reason--Ophelia, never a huge part to begin with, gets a number of her lines cut in Zeffirelli's film, and so when this student actress has to perform the entire part, she has to stretch a bit more that simply recreating Carter's performance, and she did reasonably well in that attempt.

The actor playing Claudius had some talent and seemed to understand his lines, which is more than can be said for many of the other players, but he lacked the commanding presence that Claudius requires. Laertes seemed ill-cast, and Gertrude substituted histrionics for emotion most of the time. Polonius seemed to know he was in over his head, and so simplified the character to try to get what he could out of it, which made him stand out as a brighter light.

But the largest defect really seemed to be one of directorial vision. Too often the director seemed to let these actors imitate other performances rather than forcing them to create their own. I understand that Hamlet is a long and complex play and that the director may have been happy just that a college troupe managed to remember all their lines (which they did for the most part), but you have to have more control than this.

And some errors are inexcusable. Throughout the play, there were actors standing about on the stage, obviously meant to represent courtiers or other minor nobility, as they had no speaking parts, and yet, as the play closes and Fortinbras enters, the two actors who had portrayed Rosencrantz and Guilderstern appear in new costumes to announce that Rosencrantz and Guilderstern are dead. Maybe, as Amy suggests, it's a postmodern thing. I thought it was dumb.

That said, Threepenny Opera opens in about a month. Since I've never seen that in any manner of performance, I won't know if those actors are channeling anyone (although if I see a Bobby Darin wink during Mack the Knife, I may get up and walk out of there).

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