By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
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 Hamletcost several hundreds of thousands of dollars, much of which was spent on billboards over Sunset Boulevard and on MTA buses promoting the show.
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 seenis 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 seenall 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 Hamletat 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 terriblefor 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.