I never dreamed I’d be defending vanity showcases, but here goes. Welcome to Hollywood, where Hamlets keep sprouting like mushrooms in a damp corner of the yard: six productions in the last two years, if you count Troubadour Theater Company’s parody, Hamlet, the Artist Formerly Known as the Prince of Denmark. There was the Francesco Vitali debacle at the 85-seat Tamarind Theater in 2004. A Hamlet for all seasons, it was spoken incomprehensibly by a Greek émigré with film aspirations, no stage training and a dubious command of the English language. Vitali’s Hamlet cost several hundreds of thousands of dollars, much of which was spent on billboards over Sunset Boulevard and on MTA buses promoting the show.
Last year, on a chilly knoll in Barnsdall Park, David Melville turned the Dane into a Brighton Pier stand-up in a fluid and peppy version by his Independent Shakespeare Company.
At this very moment, we have two Hollywood Hamletsrunning concurrently, at the MET and Stella Adler theaters, each produced by its star. (A third Hamlet opens Saturday at Hollywood’s Studio/Stage.)
L.A., you sneer, cradle of the vanity showcase, where actors do theater because they want to be seen, as though being seen is antithetical to doing serious work. I venture that it isn’t — that the motive to step into the light is not necessarilycorrupt. Mark Rylance wanted to be seen all those years he ran Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London. He managed the company and played all the leads. Vanity? He’s being called the greatest actor in a generation. What he did with Shakespeare’s Globe was part of a long-standing actor-manager tradition that walked hand in hand with the early classical repertory system. Our local equivalent is Jack Stehlin and his Circus Theatricals. The man has scooped up almost every local theater award in the offing. Of course he wants to be seen. Actors always want to be seen. That’s among the reasons they step onto stages.
Is it, therefore, tawdry that they should produce, say, Hamlet, and then play the lead? Are their projects deserving of contempt just because the actors’ motive is to be seen, which is a bit like condemning a goose for wanting to fly? Some fly and some don’t. Some never make it off the farm. Some cross continents.
Self-publishing was once derided as vanity grandstanding. Not anymore. Not in an economic climate where publishing houses have been reduced to investing almost entirely in potential blockbusters, with film rights and amusement-park attractions in tow. Our theater exists in the same economic climate, which closes doors of opportunity on every corner. An actor underwriting a production in which he plays the leading role may actually be doing us, and the theater, a service, a compensation for the failures of our established theaters, and the lack of imagination in their casting departments. The showcase production will probably fail on some level, as do most productions in the established venues. Its failure may or may not have anything to do with the actor wanting to be seen. That depends entirely on how much that motive infiltrates the actor’s art and craft, and that can’t be predicted. Actors deserve our respect for wanting to step into the light. Would we respect them more if they remained in the dark?
Philippe Chang, a looming, 6-foot Chinese-Swede, had the good sense to hire Eric Tucker to direct him as Hamlet at the Stella Adler, guaranteeing his appearance in an adventurous production though, it turns out, a somewhat reductive one. Tucker made his local directorial debut last year with a vivacious and elemental production of Macbeth, set in and around a North Hollywood warehouse, that featured rolling audience bleachers that the ensemble, like galley slaves, would haul from one corner of the chamber to another as the scenes changed. Tucker uses a similar passion for environment to the opposite effect in his Hamlet at the Stella Adler.
David Ross Paterson’s amiable, authoritative Polonius — head of security, with headphone planted in one ear — scans the audience for explosives and/or sharp objects. Polonius greets the audience as it waits to enter the theater before escorting them in small groups, across throw rugs, to sit in stuffed couches planted on the stage. Tucker’s cozy set design also includes suspended desk lamps and lamp shades, some hanging upside down, Alice in Wonder–like. All over the stage are television sets (on which William Hurt makes a cameo as the ghost of Hamlet’s dad), with Jesse Russell Brooks’ pre-show video documentary offering testimony by modern Danes praising the royal family. Other jokes abound. Three doors are marked by signs: England, France and Lobby. On one side, the coffin containing Hamlet’s dad lies beneath a shrine. Nearby sits a toilet, on which Polonius parks himself to watch the action, and into which Claudius (the accomplished Nigel Gore) deposits Fortinbras (a small puppet) and, later, pukes into, after Hamlet exposes how Claudius murdered his own brother.
Lolly Ward’s Gertrude (Hamlet’s mother) appears genuinely, impressively tormented by the wrenched loyalties and the grief she’s initiated by sleeping with her husband’s brother, Claudius. One actually believes that she didn’t realize until after the deed that Claudius would off her husband. She’s just a hormonal gal with needs, and now she feels terrible for her son. Christal Price’s sweet Ophelia has delicate moments as Hamlet’s jilted lover who’s headed to the river bottom. While too many supporting players render chunks of dialogue either indecipherable or emotionally vacant from overly rushed delivery, the production hangs on the craft of Gore’s Claudius, Ward’s Gertrude, Paterson’s Polonius and, to a lesser degree, Viv Weatherall as Polonius’ scalding-tempered son, Laertes.
The centerpiece, however, is Chang’s Hamlet, whose ruminations are tenderly wrought with soft-spoken clarity. When his blood boils, however — and who would Hamlet be without some blood boiling — Chang loses control with petulant screeching and flailing. And though Tucker must have been thrilled to get William Hurt on those TV screens, in a scene with Gertrude, Hamlet looks out into empty space when describing the ghost of his father. (Evidently, Hurt wasn’t available to put in a live appearance.)
The consequence is that we share Gertrude’s apprehension that her son is nuts, hearing voices in his head. But if we’re not also seeing the ghost on the stage, we’re just jurors watching a madman, while we lounge. What’s the point of Alice in Wonderland if we’re not inside Alice’s head? What’s the point of Hamlet if it’s just about a nutty fellow rather than a world gone mad? For this, among other reasons, the production is at odds with itself, atmospherically exotic, slightly glib, goofing on the play — in focus and out and in again.
The Ghost (Clifford Reed) does appear in John Farmanesh-Bocca’s comparatively straightforward production on an almost bare stage at the Met. What it lacks in environment, it more than compensates for with its own touches of wit — Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (Julianna Johnson and Rachel Binder) show up as mini-skirted schoolgirls in a pedophile’s dream, Jeanine Haan’s costumes feature some red-on-red flare, while text coach Louis Scheeder has paid such attention to the cadence and clarity of the words, the play floats around us like a magic carpet.
Adam T. Rosencrance (no relation) does the Dane as a nerd, a riff on Harry Potter with a small lisp and a sense of wonder, and growing fury. There’s little imposition of directorial prerogative. Farmanesh-Bocca’s small, cinephilic concept allows the play to breathe, with sound designer Adam Phalen’s orchestral soundtrack punctuating and, at times, accompanying entire speeches. Rosencrance is credited as one of the producers for a company called Liberation! Films. Maybe he’s doing this to get into the movies. Maybe he’s doing it as an antidote to this company town’s toxins. The man’s a good actor. I’m not standing in line to belittle his motives.?
HAMLET | By WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE | Presented by CHANGTASIA and LYRIC HYPERION PRODUCTIONS and the STELLA ADLER THEATER, 6773 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood | Through March 19 | (323) 464-8871
HAMLET | By WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE | Presented by LIBERATION! FILMS and the MET THEATER, 1089 N. Oxford Ave., Hollywood | Through March 19 | (323) 957-1152