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THEATER REVIEW: ‘Hamlet’

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Arlene Schulman, the articulate and industrious director of Woodward Shakespeare Festival’s vibrant new production of “Hamlet,” has compared the play to a “caged leopard” that paces and searches, ready to leap given the slightest opportunity. That’s a perfect way to describe Hamlet himself. The title character is portrayed with a prowling, lithe, snarling obsessiveness by Adam Meredith.

This is not Hamlet as grand protagonist. He is not the embodiment of all that is noble. He does not exude the stage-dominating gravitas that we often associate with the great men who tackle this great role. This Hamlet is brash, petulant and a bit of a whiner. He is tousled and desperate, grasping at straws, fidgeting with excess energy. He is a man bent upon seeking revenge, yes, but he is also a showman — preoccupied with the artifice and allure of the stage — who relishes the thrill of the chase. I can imagine that he’s always been a little “off” socially, even before he learned of the death of his father. He might be in line to be king, but I don’t think he’d ever get elected student body president at Clovis West High School.

Meredith is fierce and compelling. He’s just one of the reasons that I really, really like this “Hamlet.”

The production might annoy some purists. East Coast-based Schulman, who is incorporating it into her master’s thesis, has reimagined a scenario in which the two major women characters are active co-conspirators in the play. Ophelia (a delicate but effectively feisty Taylor Harris) is very much in on Hamlet’s scheme to expose his father’s murder. And it’s suggested that Queen Gertrude (Jennifer Hurd-Peterson, regal yet plagued by self-doubt) was a willing participant in that death.

The implication that Ophelia is in cahoots with Hamlet really shifts the tenor of the play. In this version, Hamlet’s “to be or not to be” soliloquy is transformed into almost a duet, with Hamlet addressing most of it directly to Ophelia. It’s implied that Ophelia’s madness at the end of her life is quite possibly feigned, mirroring Hamlet’s own “amatuer sleuth” disguise. Also implied is that Getrude has an active hand in Ophelia’s death. What’s a little more blood on her hands? (Both she and Claudius are dressed in vivid red matching ensembles, just two of Debora Bolen’s strikingly impressive costumes.)

Although I’m not sure I totally understand the Hamlet-Ophelia conspirator premise — is Hamlet’s taunting of her merely part of the “show,” or is he just truly mean? — I was intrigued throughout. Same with Gertrude’s alleged complicity. Hurd-Peterson, playing hard yet breakable, captures the character’s double-edged mindset. Even her weeping seems extravagantly forced, as if she’s still performing in her own little drama. Which, come to think of it, applies to almost every major character in this production, with the possible exception of the sturdy Claudius (Jay Patrick Parks, blustery and solid), who seems almost like a simplistic two-bit thug compared to the machinations of everyone else.

The production itself is lively and at times beautifully directed. (I love the opening moments when the Ghost, played by an imposing Michael Peterson sheathed head to toe in a shimmery silver knight costume that makes him look like Sir Nike, towers above the audience on the tallest part of the castle set, itself framed by even taller trees behind.) Schulman has a keen eye for positioning actors in relation to each other, such as in the scene between Hamlet, on his knees like a supplicant child, and the towering Ghost.

Matt Otstot is well-cast as a vengeful Laertes, and Stephen Torres exudes faithfulness as the solid Horatio.

The overall fluency of language and comfort level of the actors, even the less experienced ones, far exceeds Woodward Shakespeare’s last production of “Twelfth Night.” I found myself thoroughly enjoying, for example, the sometimes rough-hewn stage presence of Hal Bolen, who plays the befuddled Polonius. While Bolen didn’t always have the smoothest delivery on opening night, his words felt earthy and real. (And when he pops up later as the gravedigger, his Cockney-like inflection effectively distinguished him from Polonius.)

Technically speaking, the production is much better lighted than the disappointingly dim “Twelfth Night,” thanks to a new set of lights. Unfortunately, the dimmer board had not arrived for the opening night performance, but the audience was assured that the equipment should be in place for Friday’s performance. I’m sure that once the increased artistic capabilities of the lights are utilized, the production will grow even more in terms of nuance.

A warning, ahem, about the running time: “Hamlet” is a long play, no question about it. With two brief intermissions, this production clocks in at nearly three hours and 15 minutes. Some directors chop the show to bits because of a concern about attention spans, but such drastic surgery can harm the patient more than it helps. While I do think this “Hamlet” could be tightened up a bit, your mindset probably should be: You’re in for a long haul, and it’s worth it.

Responses to "THEATER REVIEW: ‘Hamlet’"

Al says:

Donald

I was there last night and must disagree with you. The idea of making the women co-conspiritors has a nice feminist ring to it, but it is not supported in the text. Even you said, “I’m not sure I totally understand….” and you’re a smart man who knows the play. What chance does the average audience member have? I guess I hate directors who take what they think is a good idea and graft it onto someone else’s play, partiucularly Shakespeare’s. I’m one of those stodgy purists I guess.

While Adam Meredith showed considerable verbal virtuousity, didn’t you find him tiresome? The director writes about Hamlet’s “journey,” but that journey seem to lose steam about halfway through the play. And you are too kind to Hurd and Harris who emote their lines feigning emotion. Perhaps that was at the director’s behest, but it all seemed very fake and dumb to me.

Congratulations to our friends at WSF on their review of Hamlet. We look forward to seeing it. VLB.

J. says:

WHAT? HOnestly? FOR SOOOTH?? I must not have sat through the same drudging three hour pity-me epic that Donald MUnro sat through. Meredith gives us a fine example of a one note Hamlet and the director seems content to load her show with silly concepts rather than say, direct her actors. Has anyone heard on intention? It is sorely lacking in this show…. and NO, just because you are loud Laertes does not mean that you are playing an intention.

Shakespeare can (and should) be better than this people. I felt like I was watching a group of neighborhood kids who threw up a production in their front lawn, eagerly awaiting the arrival of their parents to come home from work. That and a dash of cheesy dinner theatre.

I mean come on, Claudius was the friggin Burger King and Hamlet came off as a bad Emo kid spouting off pretentious poetry that he doesn’t fully understand. And the Ghost ( and later the Player King) seemed like the actor drew on Hulk Hogan to imbue his character with some energy.

Do yourselves a favor fresno. Stay AWAY FROM THIS SHOW.

Poe says:

Chill out my babies! “friggin”… really? You sound like Dr. Evil.

Anonymous says:

I have to say, Donald, you have completely missed the mark on this one. Every aspect of this production smells of mediocrity. I don’t know how much the direction (or lack thereof) played a part, but when a concept supplants the textual basis of the play, the concept doesn’t work.
I couldn’t understand what they were saying, not the sound’s problem I might add. The sound design wasn’t half bad, but the actors themselves didn’t even seem like they understood what they were saying. It’s not my job as an audience member to know the play going in. It’s my job as an audience member to sit and be entertained and to have my mind stimulated because the of the story you present to me.
Overall, I felt this was a very cute and safe production of what is arguably Shakespeare’s dirtiest, grittiest plays. None of the characters felt like they were dealing with life and death situations. All major conflicts in the play were treated as minor inconveniences.
After such a charming production of “Taming of the Shrew” last season, I was disheartened after “Twelfth Night” and then it followed by “Hamlet”, I have to say this season was a horrendous step in the wrong direction for the company. I hope they learn from theire mistakes and realize that this season was indeed a mistake.

ginger says:

Never “a mistake”…I teach Shakespeare, direct shows, and ALWAYS encourage my kids to SEE theatre. How cool that they can see it up close and personal. It is NEVER a mistake to see Shakespeare onstage… I will be there next week with 20+ advanced theatre students, and wonderful discussions(and arguments) will follow…maybe good, as Munro alludes to, bad, like the blogs, or ugly, as in set design…we’ll see. BUT they will, hopefully, know a little more about HAMLET.

Elizabeth says:

I really wish you folks would take some time and get involved with the festival, since it seems the majority of you trashing are “theatre pros.” Working within the festival is an incredibly difficult process, there are too many Alpha Dogs, not enough money or time, and its over one hundred degrees out there in those gorgeous costumes.
The production of Hamlet I saw was played by an amazing cast weighed down by a bad concept. You know, it isn’t even a bad idea, it just doesn’t work, and that is OK. I believe anyone who doesn’t know the show very well will enjoy themselves immensely, and that is a huge triumph.
Shame on you people who know anything about theatre that would DARE tell someone not to go see a production. Doing that is so counter-productive to what we all want, which is BETTER theatre. If no one goes to Hamlet (or any production in town) the company will not have the tools to mount something superior the following year, and then you are all back here bashing Donald for his supportive review of As You Like It.

Thanks for continuing to support The Woodward Shakespeare Festival, Donald. You continue to be one of their greatest contributors.

johnny says:

I saw the show last night and agree that it is a misguided concept and Meredith is a bit one note. He does speak the verse pretty well and, give the young man credit, it is a HUGE challenge. Love to see the bloggers try it. Woodward is out there trying and I give them credit for that. TWELFTH NIGHT seemed like it was just not ready on opening night (I had a fiend in the cast and went then) and it’s a shame Donald did see it again because when I saw it on closing weekend it was a much better show. I’m sure HAMLET will also improve as the cast gets more comfortable to handling this challenging show. I’m not making excuses for the actors, but shows do get better. I hope Fresno theatre lovers will see this show and whatever else strikes their fancy. It is the only way the art form will survive.

Anonymous says:

First of all, I’d like to state that I have been involved in the festival, and I’ve seen and know the potential that the company has in it to produce a quality production.
My choice phrase of “Mistake” was not referencing the company’s choice to do plays as a mistake, doing theatre is never a mistake, merely that the creative direction this season was a mistake.
I agree with Elizabeth, and I’ve seen it first handedly, there are too many alpha dogs in the company, and the company will not start to produce anything of better caliber until they realize that they can’t all be leaders, and they’re not always right. I truly hope that the WSF board reads this forum and reads the tasteful and intellectual critiques and makes some changes. I understand Donald’s meaning in being supportive of the company, but all that seems to be doing is reinforcing the self righteous views of the stubborn people who are in charge. Let’s call a spade a spade, and a poor production with a lot of space for growth just that. Then maybe WSF will stop feeling convinced that, and I quote “You don’t have to go to Oregon for Shakespeare like that”.

J. says:

I WAS involved with the Woodward Shakespeare Festival ( i was in last Summer’s Taming of the Shrew, and no, for all of those that are going to say it, I DONT think our production was god’s gift to theatre, but i’m pretty sure it was a little bit better than what we got this summer) until they started to ignore their actors. I did indeed do a show in the sweltering heat and i have earned my stripes ya’ll. And lets be honest with our selves. WSF wants to bring Shakespeare to the Valley, noble idea, but when you do that ( and indeed with ANY theatre) you step upon the chopping block. They have presented something to the public, and it is my right (as said public) to respond with criticism. This company (and their blind supporters) need to realize that you have to take the acclaim AND the criticism, otherwise YOU WONT GET BETTER… and we won’t have better shakespeare.
You could say i was trying to be mean with my earlier comment, but seriously, if i am not, who is? Who is going to tell these people to try harder, to give us a better Shakespearian experience? I will not simply give this company an “A” for effort. I can do Shakespeare in my room all alone and give myself good reviews, but it doesn’t make me a better actor, i need OUTSIDE opinions, good and bad.
I want Fresno to have an awesome Shakespeare company as well. But as it stands, we don’t. And if WSF doesn’t get serious about itself, we never will.

Elizabeth says:

J.

It is one thing to critique a show but is a whole other to TELL FRESNO NOT TO GO. As someone who has been involved (and seen how tough it can be on actors) you should be supportive, whether or not YOU liked the show. People have got to keep going out there. I also wonder how you could poo-poo a company that gave you an opportunity to get out of your bedroom and do your Shakespeare. Skipping a number of other things I could address with you, I just wonder how you could have truly enjoyed the show from your private party in the back.

C says:

In all honesty, isn’t a critique supposed to inform the public whether they should go or not? Whether their time spent will be worth it? OR they could’ve done something more productive with their time. The big, basic question that needs to be answered is: Will the show entertain? If it does, and you are not left bored or confused, then it is worth your time. And that’s why people read and listen to criticisms. It’s a busy world, one only has so much time.

True, that what appeals to some doesn’t appeal to others. True, that some have more artistic experience and thus have higher expectations. I firmly believe in constructive criticism, however harsh or true. The harsher responses are not out of hate or spite, but truly out of a desire for better quality. Truth is, people need to learn especially if they wish to treat their theatre company as something majestic (re: Anonymous post). If they are going to compare themselves, now as they are, to the wonderful Shakespearean productions that go on in Oregon, they need to raise their quality. Once you’ve seen beauty, you’ll never stand for anything less. So you can hardly blame the criticisms for wanting more.

And yes, support and criticism should go hand in hand. But really, why would you recommend, in your opinion, a bad restaurant? As a server, you would not allow a meal you know to be bad to be ordered. Even if it was only your opinion. You explain why you do not like the dish, and all’s well if they prefer that, but it is your duty to warn. It’s called criticism.

J. says:

Just to avoid some confusion i am NOT Jay Felix. I realize now that my choice of a shortened name and history may lead some to assume that i am he; i am not.

Debora Bolen says:

Dear Donald –

We are so pleased that you enjoyed the show. Thank you for your commendation and critique, and most of all, for your encouragement during the Woodward Shakespeare Festival’s 4th Season of presenting live, full-scale productions of William Shakespeare’s works, FREE of charge and open to all members of the general public.

Debora Bolen
Costume Design/HAMLET
Woodward Shakespeare Festival 2008

KJ says:

Local theatre companies, like WSF, are NOT doing actors a favor by letting them get up and perform. Most local actors VOLUNTEER their time, and are therefore doing the companies as much of a favor, if not more, than the companies are doing them.

Also, if we as a community support bad theatre, it will only beget more bad theatre.

My neighborhood kids did a kick-ass production of Merchant of Venice last weekend. I recommend everyone check it out.

Michael Peterson says:

Well, well, where to start? And once begun, where to end?

Donald, you were right about the shoes. We were trying to differentiate as much as possible between the Player King and Ghost costumes but it clearly came off as a bit ridiculous and I’m now wearing the boots for both.

To all those who want to be critical, your opinions are a valuable form of feedback. Firstly, to us individuals who are crazy enough to get up there and do this thing and secondly, to the organization as a whole, which like any large and sufficiently complex system is rife with chaos and incompleteness. We could all stand to improve ourselves; we all strive in our own ways to grow and stretch and expand our capabilities. But may I ask one thing? Please try to be respectful. We didn’t charge you a cent to see the show, remember it’s FREE (Yeah right, free of quality you’re probably thinking) And I’m not saying this to excuse or justify any weaknesses there may be in this production or any others in the past or future. It’s just that we’re all volunteers, giving of our time and energy, trying to provide a bit of “culchah” to our little town, and if you think you can do better, come on down. Get involved. Throw your own hat in the ring. Show us what you can do.

Or, in closing, if you can’t resist a bit of snarky sarcasm, don’t hide behind initials or sign on as “Anonymous.” That’s just lame. You want to criticize? Fine. Just have some integrity and put your name to it.

Michael Peterson
Hack Actor, specializing in Shakespearean Ghosts

A. Langford says:

Oh what misguided strength comes from using “Anonymous� as a shield! As with any review or opinion on plays or any other event that is judged one thing remains the same; one’s view is singular and shaded with personal emotion.

For those who like to list their accomplishments i.e.� I was a part of WSF in the past�…but choose to write such a scathing review of those attempting to complete the same goal I say find another outlet to focus your jealousy and irritation on as this play and its cast does not deserve it.

Clearly this example of Hamlet may differ from past experiences for most of us (I think I said aloud prior to the show that Hamlet was by far my least favorite…) but change is most welcomed in this instance. The directing added sharp contrast and an intriguing twist to an otherwise brooding and drawn out play. Was it strange to see “To be or not to be� spoken to the fair Ophelia? Sure it was…but it definitely made her impact on the play a whole lot more interesting.

The young man playing Hamlet (Meredith) and the talented cast allowed even the small girls in front of me (they couldn’t have been more than 8 years of age) to understand the play and become immersed in its intensity. In fact when Laertes returns triumphantly onto the stage to avenge his father’s death and his sister’s psychosis the little girls cheered and held onto each other eagerly awaiting the climax of the play. It was in that moment that I felt the WSF had achieved a much higher goal than they most likely set out for. They really reached people in an audience…children, grandparents, friends and lovers…everyone around my seat cheered and clapped loudly when all was said and done.

Amidst the summertime bugs the cast of Hamlet gave Fresno a wonderful gift of class and art…it’s one of the best things to do in Fresno on a Thursday, Friday or Saturday night…Don’t rely on a cowards review….see it for yourself…If not for the quality local acting then for the gorgeous and mesmerizing costumes…or for the interpretation of the Ghost (Peterson) or the very cool sword fights…There’s something for everyone at Shakespeare in the Park ï�Š

IN says:

I set down to watch Hamlet last Saturday night with about 15 teenagers, all who will be starting their senior year in high school next week. I’m not a teacher and I am definitely not an expert on Shakespeare, I a just a mom. I was very impressed with the set and the costumes were gorgeous! I glanced around during the play and noticed that some of these young ladies and gentlemen were reciting the lines of Hamlet right along with these talented actors. I know that their teacher had taught them well. In spite of the heat and a very loud rock band we really enjoyed ourselves. We laughed and we cringed, the full moon in the backround of the set just added to the mood of this very entertaining play. When it was over I realized how fortunate we have been in the valley these past 4 years to have Woodward Shakesspeare in the park and for free!! This very creative, talented and hard working organization has brought us a variety of talent and desperately needed culture to our community. We will continue to go and enjoy their splendid venues!!!

J. says:

My name is Jordan Roberts. If you are really aggravated with me, email me, let’s talk Shakespeare, Jordanroberts87@csufresno.edu. I am a Senior Theatre Major at Fresno State, and i hated this play. Happy now? I have shed my cowardly guise of anonymity!!!
I know what it’s like to be in a show that is pandered, a show that is described as crass, and heck, i’ve been in shows where my performance was never mentioned (good or bad) in the review at all. It is my job to put myself in the public eye. I know what it is like to “miss the mark” but i dare say i handled it with a bit more finesse. Allow the public to have their opinion, all you can do as an actor is take the notes, try and improve, and do your best. I guess what all that was meant to mean was that i know what it is like to receive a bad review.
I knew most of you probably wouldn’t listen and would post and repost about how lame i was for sharing my opinion. BUT i will not stand for this without at least tipping my hat into the mix.
I have seen professional Shakespeare shows and guess what folks…. It is not impossible to present something comprehensible and beautiful. It takes hard work yes, but it can be done. This company seems fit as a fiddle to waste their money on silly microphones that don’t ever seem to work properly. This company is run by a group of lawyers who know how to lawyer… but NOT HOW TO RUN A THEATRE COMPANY. WSF needs an artistic director not a board of lawyers looking for tax write-offs.
People donate money (i worked the donation buckets after Taming of the Shrew enough to know) and i am sure that the company gets SOME money from the city. Can we at least see this money wisely spent?? The very least you could do is bend your will to making the most aesthetically beautiful sets and costumes your money can buy. And thus far? I am not impressed.
With Othello the WSF seemed like they were on the right track. An entertaining, well spoken production of shakespeare. The costumes were lovely. The set needed work, but hey, it was better than nothing. I had began to think that WSF was going to shed it’s Community-Theatre shackles and become something more.
AND THEN THE COMPANY TOOK A NOSE DIVE.
With Twelfth Night we got a ridiculously UNfunny comedy and with Hamlet we get a highly conceptualized one note production of one of Shakespeare’s most complex plays.

But hey, i have said my piece, and i wash my hands of this foolishness. If this is really the best Shakespeare that Fresno has to offer i will just have to watch my Shakespeare else where.
And as for encouraging local theatre, i will say this, Fresnans have been encouraging this company for four years now. Trained actors from Fresno State have been showing up to auditions to support and encourage this company for four years. And Actors will only work for free for so long folks. Even GCP gives their actors a pittance. WHEN does it get better?? If we continually lend blind support, the alpha dogs aren’t going to fix what they believe isn’t broken. I’m sorry i have the audacity to expect some quality after four years. I will lend a voice to those unhappy with this company, to those who want to be proud of their local Shakespeare, and AREN’T. You need Donald’s support, yes, but you also need someone brave enough to step forward and say “i didn’t like that, here’s why.”

For those of you offended at my posts, i am truly sorry. I probably shouldn’t have opened my mouth in the first place. I should have known criticism wouldn’t be well received from this crowd. This is my last post. DOnald i am sorry i have cluttered your blog, and Fresno, I am sorry this is the only Shakespeare you get.
Medicine NEVER tastes good, but guess what, it helps. Take a swig and lets see where we can take this company.

Adieu, adieu, adieu.

Donald Munro says:

Donald checks in:

This posting has gotten a lot of comments, and emotions have gotten a little heated. I just wanted to address a few points:

1. First and foremost, I really want to encourage a civil discussion here on this blog. Now, a “civil discussion” doesn’t have to mean that everything has to be smoothed over and every production declared magnificent. Art can spark controversy, and that’s a good thing. I can’t help but think that Shakespeare would get a chuckle if he knew that his words could ignite such passions hundreds of years in the future in a part of the world he didn’t even know existed.

2. Theater going is subjective, and every review of a production you read on this blog — including mine — is colored by personal experiences, preferences, background, temperament and even where a person is sitting in an audience. Because it is possible for people to write anonymously online — and keep in mind that just because some blogs require “real names” doesn’t mean that those names are verified — it’s best to treat all commenters as partisan. You never know a commenter’s relationship to cast members or the company. That doesn’t mean those people’s views aren’t valid. They have as much a right to express them as the most dispassionate observer who has never heard of Woodward Shakes or recognizes not a name in the cast. But remember that some people have a vested interest, good or bad. Heck, we ALL have vested interests. Some of us just have bigger ones than others.

3. Some of the comments on the blog allude to specific issues with this production of the play. Others have to do with the organization itself. I think that both are appropriate topics, and, furthermore, it’s probably impossible to completely separate a production from the company that presents it. However, I think it makes an argument stronger to know which issue you’re addressing and not to hopelessly comingle the two. I think we could have fascinating discussions for days on whether it’s appropriate to take a liberal approach to Shakespeare’s text (such as what the director did this in the play). We could also have discussions on the direction of Woodward Shakespeare as a public organization. Trying to do both at the same time gets a little messy.

4. I don’t allow personal/libelous attacks on this blog. Example: Actor X is lazy. Or: Director Y is stealing money from the box office. However, and this is a big however, when you’re in the theater, you’re performing for people, and getting critiqued is part of the territory. If you think that Actor X did a lazy job interpreting a character, that’s fair game. If you want to say that Director Y stole two hours of your life and you’ll never get it back, that might be a little harsh — and you might want to question whether you’re needlessly hurting someone’s feelings, especially if that person is not a professional — but it’s a valid expression of your opinion. The same standards that apply to actors also apply to critics, of course, and to commenters as well. If you put your opinion out there, don’t be surprised if you get a little heat. Think of the diversity of opinion as part of the fun. If we all felt exactly the same way about every production, then what would we talk about on the drive home?

5. I love theater. While I can’t require that the readers of this blog do, too, I would hope that everyone would remember that the reason that people go out on stage — or give up their precious time to be in an audience — is to add a little charge to life that wouldn’t otherwise be there. I hope that’s something we can all agree on.

ginger says:

clap…clap…clap… a caravan of kids..all paying “out of town” park fees will descend on Woodward Shakes Friday night, complete with bug spray, mini flashlights, a few blankets, and watch HAMLET, all for the love of theatre. Afterwards, over Jamba Juice, the conversations will begin. And so it goes..

bear says:

before i see this production i would like to share why i’m a little unwilling.

firstly i’ve heard some of those involved with the production they feel it lacks continuity. and that, my friends, does not make me feel like i’ll be promised a good performance.

secondly, hearing about this concept offended me. Hamlet is one of my favorite plays, so yes… i am one of those purists. I’m all for experimentation in theatre, hell that’s a huge portion of the job. however, i do not like when people create roles that aren’t there. the first thing i felt when i heard Ophelia was to be a co-conspiritor with Hamlet was heartbreak. She stands for so much in this play and the concept completely renders her useless. You have lost one of the biggest emotional ins to this play and made her suicide irrelevant. One of the greatest symbols of purity, honesty, and innocence has been mutilated by the concept and completely overrides Shakepeare’s plot and ideas.

that is my biggest hurdle in seeing this production.

Elizabeth says:

I strongly encourage anyone who is unsure about the “Ophelia Concept” to go se the show.  (no matter how terrifying). See why it doesn’t work, or why it does. It can only strenghthen your knowledge  and opinion of the play itself. For years and years people have bee staging Shakespeare every which-a-way, (Remember WSF’s first year of WWII  shows?) Its kind of nice to see an actual interperation of the story rather than just a scenery change. Personally, the concept didn’t work for me, but I am glad I saw it so that I am now better informed. Plus, The entire cast are real champs and deserve a full house.

Donald Munro says:

Donald writes:

Elizabeth, a big hurrah for your last comment.

Bear, if you’re a huge fan of “Hamlet,” then I don’t think you have anything to worry about. I know that I’ve seen “Hamlet” at least 10 times on stage (and that doesn’t count the movies), and while I don’t have as strong an emotional connection to the play as it seems you do, I’d still defend it from willful butchery by a director. I found Schulman’s concept absolutely intriguing. It made me think in a whole new way about Ophelia. And I have to say that her rationale for making Ophelia a more active participant in the play raises some interesting points. Here’s how Schulman described her take on the character in my interview with her:

“Ophelia (played by Taylor Harris) is always played as a total victim. But if that is true, then why have her kill herself? It accomplishes little in the play and creates a very weak and ineffectual character. It seems clear to me that Hamlet and Ophelia have a strong relationship of some kind before the play begins. Surely she believes he loves her, and I believe that too. I always wondered why everyone assumes that Hamlet never mentioned anything to Ophelia about the Ghost, his father’s murder and his own need to confirm the Ghost’s accusations. He tells Horatio; why not the woman he loves? So I decided to postulate that he DOES tell her and then read the play with that in mind. And everything changed without changing a word. Ophelia’s description to Polonius of Hamlet’s behavior toward her always seemed overly dramatic to me, as does Hamlet’s letter to her that Polonius reads to the King and Queen. What if they really were just that? What if they were creations devised between Hamlet and Ophelia to divert attention from Hamlet’s true reason for feigning madness? I decided to explore that and and it led me to a restaging of Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” speech directly to Ophelia rather than as a soliloquy (which had been done in the late 1970′s by Sir Derek Jacobi and later by Jonathan Price in their own productions). And that led to the conclusion that perhaps Ophelia’s madness was at least partly feigned as well – an extension of Hamlet’s own search in his absence. Hamlet and Ophelia’s relationship is intensely sensual, and that carries over into the mad scene as well. Could that lead to her death, perhaps at the hands of a suspicious and perhaps jealous Gertrude? I decided to see what happened if we attempted to explore that stronger inter-relationship between these two women and the men in their lives.”

Is Schulman’s concept far-fetched? I don’t know enough about the play to really assess that in terms of scholarship. But what I do know is that not only did her concept not “ruin” the play for me, it opened a whole new line of questioning that I’d never considered before. I’m with Elizabeth on this one: I’d rather see real experimentation (backed up by good reasoning, of course) than yet one more attempt to set the play in a different time.

Taylor Harris says:

Hi Bear,

I understand your concerns about the show. My dad is a HUGE Hamlet fan, and he was very skeptical and even irritated when I’d get home from rehearsals and try to explain how I was going to be playing Ophelia. Like you, he said I should not be creating a role that isn’t there and that I shouldn’t be changing the play. But after he saw the play, he told me that he was wrong, and that he could see that we did not change the play or create a new character.

I would like to address some of the points you listed in your comment.

First, I believe the phrase “creating a role that isn’t there” is irrelevant when you consider that EVERY actor who lands a role is going to bring a different dimension to that role. As long as there is an Ophelia to be played, the actor playing her is going to create and express her own Ophelia. Also, Shakespeare never wrote how he wanted Ophelia to be played; we only have the text to go by to determine how her character should be created.

Second, I’d like to point out that compared to other versions of Hamlet, this version actually preserves the most of Ophelia’s role in the sense that we did not change any of her lines and only cut a few of them (one verse in the mad scene is cut to save time. If you’ve seen any of the Hamlet movies, you’ll see that Ophelia had quite a bit more to say than what the film directors let her.

Third, you say that Ophelia playing a co-conspirator with Hamlet is a heartbreak… and I want to say that I hope so! I understand that you say “heartbreak” as in a disappointment, but I hope that if you see the show, you will experience the term in it’s truest form. That is, I hope it IS heartbreaking to see Ophelia so devoted to Hamlet that she is willing to risk her own life for his sake, attempts to confront the king and queen while still in spite of feeling like she’s about to fall apart, and end up murdered by his mother.

Finally, I hope that if you see this play, you might change your mind that the concept renders Ophelia useless. I think this Ophelia is pretty empowered. I also hope that you will still see in her a symbol of purity, honest, and innocence, in spite of the fact that she is helping Hamlet feign his madness and ends up partially feigning her own. At the dockside, Ophelia hears her father tell brother, “This above all: to thine own self be true, And it must follow, as the night the day, Thou canst not then be false to any man.” Ophelia overhears this and remains true to herself until her death. She heeds neither her brother’s nor her father’s warnings to stay away from him, and instead stays true to herself, which involves her being true to the love she and Hamlet have for each other.

I truly hope you can make it out to see the show and give it a chance. You might like it, you might not, but I encourage you to at least give it a try.

Best wishes,
Taylor Harris

Brandon Weis says:

WOW….not much else to say, but WOW. I plan on seeing this show within the next few weeks. I have a “personal” connection to this company, as one of the original creative minds that hatched the crazy idea of bringing free Shakespeare to Woodward Park and the City of Fresno, and it is sad to hear such dubiety surrounding the production, as well as the company on the whole.

I will be frank in the fact that I have had nothing to do with any of the productions that have found their way to the stage for WSF, an admission that I am not proud of, being a theatre lover. But, have seen several of them and have found a couple of them to be at the level i expected given the infancy of the company. Do I beleive that the company is using their talent as best as they can? No. Fresno has many untapped resources for theatrical talent, such as: CSUF, FCC, CMT, GCP, and the excellent high school programs from Fresno, Clovis and Madera.

The goal of this company, originally, was to bring Shakespeare to the masses…QUALITY Shakespeare to the masses. To entertain, as well as educate. The orignal tag line for the company was “From the page to the stage;Gaining knowledge through art”…it seems that the company has taken many attempts at this, to much adversity. Is this from the quality of production presented, or the quality of those running the company? That is not for me to decide. I am simply an audience member who plans on sitting uncomfortably for three hours watching one of the greatest plays ever written. I am coming to be entertained and drawn into the world they are creating. I will not be carrying into the “theatre” any preconceived ideas based off of the postings above, as that would not be fair to the hard working actors who have dedicated countless hours to producing something that they would be proud to invite people to, not to mention being unfair to myself. I am truly excited to see this production, regardless of the postings on this site, or the review. I will go in with a fresh set of eyes and ears and allow myself to be consumed by the world of the play. If at the end I do not find it to my liking…so what? Will I be honest if others ask what I thought? of course. Will I write about it on this site? No…probably not. That is not to say that those who have spoken their mind are wrong in doing so (i actually had to stand up and applaud the honesty and bravery of “J.” for his passionate post).

Anyways, that is my thoughts. I am thrilled to see that WSF has lasted 4 seasons so far (must be a great business plan that they have in place). One would hope that each season will/would bring with it a higher caliber of talent and production quality. You all must remember though, WSF is still in its infancy and is going to fall down on its face here and there. It may not ever learn to walk or run, unless it has the support structures to back it up and tell it when its doing well and when it has missed the mark. Constructive criticism is good and necessary for growth and development. The companies success will be measured by how well it is able to take the criticism to heart (without ego’s and personal agendas) and learn from them. I wish them luck and continued growth and future success.

There…i’ve said my peace.

Celeste Johnston says:

I’ve read many of the criticisms of Hamlet on this blog and while everyone is entitled to their opinion I cannot agree with much of what is said. New interpretations of a play are always challenging. Go and see the play and judge for yourselves. On the concept of Meredith being a one-note Hamlet I would have to totally disagree. I’ve seen many Hamlets in my time. The Lawrence Oliver film version is one and a filmed staged version with Kevin Kline as the Dane. Ken Branagh’s film. At least three live staged productions one from the National Theatre in London (Daniel Day-Lewis) and two from the Royal Shakespeare Company (Alex Jennings and Samuel West) among others. I am well-versed in one-note Hamlets. Meredith is not one of them. Having studied Shakespeare in Stratford-upon-Avon I can state the contemporary performance theory on the playing of Hamlet is that it is a role to big for one actor to sound all the notes contained within the character. He is melancholy, feigning madness, vengeful, antic, comic. No actor can play it all. And having witnessed many Hamlets I tended to agree with this accepted view of acting the character, then in 2002 (I think) I saw the RSC production of Hamlet with Samuel West as the title character. He sounded all the notes that other actors where unable to. His Hamlet showed me it can be done. Meredith’s Hamlet matches Samuel West’s ability to play Hamlet’s many-faceted character. Munro is right. Meredith’s Hamlet is not the Grand Protagonist. His Hamlet is a person trying to find his way through a complicated world not of his own choosing and he does it with humour, energy and verve. Both West and Meredith showed me that Hamlet is a person and not an archtype for feigned madness or tragedy. He makes mistakes and has doubts and emotional outbursts. Meredith plays that convincingly and on par with West, my most complete Hamlet. All others of my theatrical viewing experience have only managed to highlight a few and sometimes only one aspect of the wordy Dane.

I know the play extremely well and listening to THIS production of the play has reminded me of how much I love this play. That is due the actors who have brought this particular interpretation to life. The acting throughout the cast is strong, probably the strongest I’ve seen with WSF.

I look for moments of magic in each performance, each production I see, a moment where I am transported out of my reality and into the world of the play before me. These can last the whole play or simply exists as flashes of brilliance and clarity. Those moments don’t always come. Some productions (profession and college and community) don’t ever achieve them, but I appreciate the efforts that go into staging the show. Last night at Hamlet I had one of those moments. In the “Nunnery scene” Hamlet was berating Ophelia downstage and I felt their tragedy. Even though they are, in this production “complicit”, which is a break from the general interpretive vein, there was a moment when Ophelia was confused and hurt by the treatment she was receiving from this Hamlet, her love and co-conspirator, and Hamlet was tormenting the one who loved and supported him in this action to reveal the king. The emotion was real and could never been created by a “one note” Hamlet and a “useless” (to quote another blogger) Ophelia. That moment could never have been created without the unique interpretive bent taken by the director, Arlene Schulman. Open yourself to a new experience before you, and leave the preconceived notions at the door. You will be rewarded by this production if you do.

Gregory Hocking says:

Lots of interesting thoughts for this show. I saw the same show as the previous blogger and couldnt have a more opposite feeling. While I haven’t seen the show as often as she has, I did teach it in high school and feel that I know it pretty well. While I didnt like the director’s concept, it was an interpretation and theatre can’t grow without people experimenting and trying new things. What I objected to in the production was the flatness of the spoken verse and the tragivally inadequate production values. With the exception of Meredith, who is pretty whiny but use his full vocal range, the rest of the cast does not have sufficient vocal variety to sustain interest during this long play. They weren’t bad, just flat. They are speaking poetry and too often it seemed like they were unable to find the music in the verse. As much as people disliked WSF’s TWELFTH NIGHT, I felt several of those actors, particularly Casey Ballard, did a better job at giving us vocal variety. As to production values, WSF falls far far short of the mark. The TWELFTH NIGHT set looked unfinished and the HAMLET set looked like a less interesting version of something from Hobbs Grove. It had no variety, no strong visual sense. The costumes were the only element that approached the term theatrical. And I agree with someone who said that this company seems to spend all its time using mics that don’t work or don’t work well. I don’t know if it’s a design issue or a sound operator issue but the sound is horrible. Finally, I wish WSF wouldn’t have the actors come out after the show and beg for money. It is demeaning to them, especially since they aren’t even getting the money.

GINGER says:

I’ve come to these shows every summer, and I see growth from show to show. Sound, although still far from perfect, is much improved. I remember actors being drowned out by the sounds of Hwy 41, and mics that seemed non-existent. Lighting is better as well, although I would have preferred cool lights and fog on the ghost… Grateful for the light out on the street at end of evening.
Acting is still a mixed bag, but so it goes with “community theatre”. I took students Friday night, and most were interested enough to argue with me afterwards.. I was impressed with Adam Meredith. His Hamlet was a guy in a bad siuation; nothing grandiose or eloquent, but real.
I still struggled with the conspiracy, although there were moments between Opheila and Hamlet that made it seem apropriate that she knew what was going on.. Polonuis was a dad trying to take care of his kid, and kiss up to the boss. I’m more concerned about the reality here than the verse. THis is a difficult and long show, and I believe they pulled it off pretty well.

Paul says:

I went last night. I wholeheartedly agree with Munro’s review about direction, If you have seen about 15 or 20 different stage productions of Hamlet, You never tire of Shaekespeare, but you could become annoyed with every director trying to put their stamp in it. I have to say that in this one I was pleasantly surprised by the new twist of female co-conspirators. It does explan a bit some of the inexplicable plot twists later on if Gertrude is at least somewhat complicit and does everyone really believe that Ophelia is that stupid? I really, really liked this version. I also agree with some of the posts that it is always good to see a play, even if you don’t like the direction because challenging your views about how something should be is an educational experience, and wholly in keeping with the goal of brinking Shakespeare to the masses.

ginger says:

I challenge all area teachers of English, Theatre+++ to take kids to these plays…
from RSC:
ROYAL SHAKESPEARE COMPANY EDUCATIONAL PROGRAM:
STAND UP FOR SHAKESPEARE

Some 400 years after they were written, Shakespeare’s plays are read and studied with undiminished interest all over the world, with every culture bringing its own distinctive perspective to his work.

Shakespeare can still speak to young people, inspiring them to articulate their feelings and develop their ideas and gain new insights into the world around them. It’s no surprise that he remains the only writer studied by all young people in England and Wales.

We want to ensure that young people feel Shakespeare belongs to them and that they have the opportunity to explore his work in the most enriching way possible.

Read the Stand up for Shakespeare manifesto:

* Introduction
* Do it on your feet
* See it live
* Start it earlier
* Conclusion
* Credits and quotes

Finally saw Hamlet last night.

I wanted to add Adam to a photographic project I’m working on. For the last three or four weeks I’ve been going around making portraits of actors after their shows.

Adam was very generous with his time on short notice.

It didn’t go a smoothly as I would have liked, but I am grateful for the production company’s accommodating staff.

I wrote about it here in my blog: http://suggers.blogspot.com/2008/08/hamlet.html

I have a small showing of the project in its early stages on my flickr accout: http://www.flickr.com/photos/craiger66/sets/72157606655198266/

Thanks for looking!

C West says:

I have been following this Hamlet discussion for some time with varying degrees of amusement and disdain and have decided to chime in myself.
To be truthful from the beginning I have been a part of WSF from its first year, and have worked with many of the current cast. While that may seem to prejudice my opinion of the play, it also gives me insight into what the director, cast and crew went through to mount this production. They had about six weeks to prepare. I found Ms. Schulman’s to be both faithful and thought provoking. The “Ophelia concept” was interesting to me and certainly did not dominate or change the play.
I have seen eight staged Hamlets,including the Old Vic, Ashland, and New York, and each of them would have been improved with Adam Meredith as the Dane. Mr. Meredith is not an actor to chew up the scenery. His is a more subtle and nuanced performance. He has a firm grasp of the language, but more than that he continues acting when he is not speaking. His movements, body language, and expressions are molded by the dialogue and events that surround him. Watch his eyes and hands when he is not speaking. Any one who called his a “one-note” performance is obviously tone deaf. I would also like to call attention to the fine performances by Taylor Harris, Hal Bolen, Jay Parks, Michael Peterson, Jennifer Hurd and Casey Ballard.
As for the idea that the WSF is run by a “board of lawyers”: it was those lawyers who stepped up when they were needed with the expertise to make the festival a reality. Anyone thinking they are doing all this for a tax write off have never witnessed the actual time and physcial labor Hal Bolen and Chris Campbell have put into this endeavor, or are familiar with their contributions to other performing arts in Fresno, such as the ballet, opera, etc. I am sure lawyers of their caliber could have found some easier “write-offs.”
As I read the above comments as well as the ones for Twelfth Night, I learn that there is a wealth of untapped theatrical expertise wandering aimlessly through the city. I would invite them to bring their talents to the park next year for AS YOU LIKE IT and RICHARD III.