Claudius is marrying his late brother’s wife, Gertrude, and you’re invited to their wedding. Outside Casa Romantica, a gorgeous old Spanish Colonial house overlooking San Clemente Pier, an unctuous poser named Rosencrantz greets you. Entering the casa, you walk past a creepy Goth dude whom you later learn is Gertrude’s son. Yes, that would be Hamlet.
So begins Slings and Arrows, Monkey Wrench Collective’s reconception of Hamlet for the Casa Romantica Cultural Center in Orange County. Seated on folding chairs in the courtyard, audience members watch Claudius’ and Gertrude’s wedding ceremony, immediately followed by a quick shuffling of scenes from Hamlet, intercut with new material riffing on Shakespeare.
In director Dave Barton’s take, Hamlet is schizophrenic. There’s no ghost giving Hamlet orders, only mental hallucinations. The audience perceives his delusions through two “Shadow Hamlets,” male and female manifestations in black capes and death’s-head makeup, who convince Hamlet that Claudius murdered Hamlet’s father.
This seated portion winds up with Hamlet killing Polonius in cold blood (not accidentally as per Shakespeare). Then the audience — with maps in the programs to guide them — splits up and travels throughout Casa Romantica for 35 minutes to take in six scenes simultaneously staged in different areas. (Comfortable shoes for standing and walking are useful.)
Enter a room in the middle of a scene? Don’t worry, the actors loop back to the beginning and replay the scene so you can catch what you missed.
During this period, each Shadow Hamlet stands in for the real, schizophrenic Hamlet in scenes with Ophelia and Rosencrantz. This enables three different scenes featuring a Hamlet to take place at the same time. There are 720 different ways in which all six looping scenes could be visited.
Act 1 concludes with audience members convening in the Main Salon to watch Ophelia go mad, with Hamlet’s Shadows arguing with Hamlet about whether Claudius should be murdered now or later. Act 2 begins with five scenes running on loops, before the audience gathers together at the end.
The staging is unusual, but making Hamlet a homicidal maniac leaves viewers adrift. Without a hero to root for, we can only watch family and friends stab each other in the back. Ophelia is the most likable character, and she winds up depressed to the point of suicide. If anyone here is wronged, it’s Laertes, who loses his father and his sister. However, he remains in the sidelights, dramatically overwhelmed by not one but three Hamlets.
Another problem, at least at the April 11 show, was that there just wasn’t enough time to experience every looping scene. Feel free to skip Laertes’ Act 1 song and dance and Ophelia’s Act 2 suicide.
It’s not possible to have a good production of Hamlet without a great lead. Jeffrey Kieviet doesn’t have the magnetism or sympathy to draw in viewers. His Hamlet is a morose moper with no spark or nobility. One of the Shadow Hamlets, Brenda Kenworthy, is more compelling than Kieviet in her scenes with Ophelia and Gertrude.
There is noteworthy acting elsewhere. Bryan Jennings stands out as a regal Claudius. Jill Cary Martin makes a distinguished but troubled Gertrude, and Alexander Marc Makardish is a smarmy, treacherous Rosencrantz.
Hamlet traditionally takes place at wintertime in a Danish castle, a cold, dank place. By choosing one of the happiest buildings in one of Orange County’s most laid-back cities, Barton and company have set themselves a challenge they can’t meet. Far too often the cheeriness of Casa Romantica cuts through the gloom of the text. It’s hard to feel heartbroken for Ophelia being tossed aside with a Pacific Ocean sunset behind her.
There are poetic moments in this production: a shadow play depicting the deaths of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern; Polonius as an angel, dishing dirt on the other characters; and Hamlet joking with the Gravedigger, updated with a rendition of Harold Arlen’s “One for my Baby.” But this show, by and large, feels more like an amusing haunted-house ride than one of English theater’s greatest tragedies.
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