Sunday, October 1, 2017

O'er The Ramparts of Elsinore

One of the great gifts I received when I started attending opera performances was an understanding of the word "repertoire." Many a Mimi, Aida, Violetta, and Tosca appeared onstage at the New York City Opera and Metropolitan Opera during the years I haunted Lincoln Center. The more money I spent at Sam Goody, the better I came to understand that no one person (not even Maria Callas) could own a role or define a character. Individual singers might bring nuance, shading, and interpretation to their characterizations but, while it was fascinating to watch them inhabit a role and contrast their contributions to the art, they were never in competition with each other. Their goal was to master the music while honoring the composer's intentions.

As I began to visit other opera companies, I encountered new singers in old roles as well as familiar singers in new roles. While someone stepping into the role of a messenger or nurse wasn't an earth-shaking event (unless it was the nurse in Die Frau Ohne Schatten), operas like La Traviata and Lucia di Lammermoor allowed me to sit in a darkened theatre and sort out my own troubles as I watched an old friend die onstage.

One night I might watch a consumptive courtesan cathartically cough her way to life's conclusion; on another night I might witness a doomed diva defiantly leap to her death from the rampart of Rome's famous Castel Sant'Angelo or some demented damsel dive to a watery demise from the dock where the Flying Dutchman was moored. One night it might be a sexy gypsy brutally being stabbed to death outside a bullring; another night it might be a voluptuous vixen who had sniffed some poisoned violets (tenors and baritones rarely suffer such misfortunes).

Through hundreds of performances in darkened theatres, the pattern of witnessing an assortment of artists don familiar costumes to enact familiar scenarios became a ritual backed by phenomenal music by composers ranging from Mozart, Handel, Rossini, Bellini, and Donizetti to Verdi, Wagner, Puccini, Strauss, and Janacek. Because New York's two largest opera companies performed in repertory, it was easier to witness a parade of opera singers than if I had waited for lead performers to exit the casts of long-running Broadway musicals.

The plays of William Shakespeare (as well as the operas based upon them) offer a never-ending stream of casting choices to whet a theatregoer's palate. In the spring of 1961 I saw my first production of Hamlet at the Phoenix Theatre on Second Avenue. It was a student matinee starring Donald Madden with John Heffernan as Polonius and Ray Reinhardt as Horatio. A piece of trivia I was much too young to appreciate at the time comes from an April 1966 article in Communication Quarterly by Paula A. Langsam of the Speech Department at City College of New York (CCNY).
"On May 18, 1961, Stuart Little reported 'Three more weeks have been added to the engagement and will take Donald Madden in the title role to June 18 and 109 performances, which is a longer run than any American actor has ever had, all the way back to Edwin Booth.'"
The Playbill for 1961's Hamlet starring Donald Madden

Under the auspices of the New York State Council on the Arts, the Phoenix Theatre's production of Hamlet (minus Donald Madden in the title role) subsequently later on a five-week tour to 25 cities throughout New York State. Although subsequent Broadway productions of Shakespeare's tragedy starred Ellis Rabb (45 performances), Stephen Lang (45 performances), Sam Waterston (47 performances), Nicol Williamson (52 performances), Jude Law (72 performances), and Ralph Fiennes (91 performances), Richard Burton (137 performances) was the only actor to break Madden's record.

Over the past two decades, the melancholy Dane has appeared in various forms on Bay area stages

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To launch her final season as artistic director of American Conservatory Theater, Carey Perloff has directed a new production of Hamlet starring John Douglas Thompson (who appeared at A.C.T. in early 2016 in his one-man show entitled Satchmo at the Waldorf). The 51-year-old Shakespearean actor (who has portrayed Othello, Macbeth, Antony, Richard III, and King Lear) has longed to play the Prince of Denmark for many years. As he explains:
Hamlet has been written about more than any work of literature apart from the Bible, in terms of what people have written about the role, the play, its meaning, and what we can learn from it. There’s something about wanting to be a part of something so massive and universal but so very specific and so very human -- to want to throw yourself into that maelstrom. Hamlet offers the fullest exhibition of Shakespeare’s powers. It’s not just the play but the part itself, because the part is so iconic and synonymous with the journey that the character goes through. As an actor, I want to test myself against that.”
John Douglas Thomas as Hamlet (Photo by: Kevin Berne)
“When I did Tamburlaine the Great (a larger role than anything in Western literature), people would ask me ‘Why are you doing it?’ That’s a play in which I had 1,700 lines -- more lines than Hamlet. Part of the attraction was that it was this huge mountain which was in front of me. I wanted to see if I could climb it and see what was at the top. It was arduous, physical, and intellectually rigorous work, but I did it.”
The ghost (Steven Anthony Jones) appears before his son (John
Douglas Thompson) in a scene from Hamlet (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

With scenery and costumes designed by David Israel Reynoso and lighting by James F. Ingalls, A.C.T.'s production is set in a drab, imposing facility that could just as easily be an abandoned manufacturing site as the Kronborg castle at Elsinore. The industrial equivalent of "death's door" (from which Ophelia's body appears on a morgue-like slab) could just as easily be used for the scene in Sweeney Todd when Mrs. Lovett gets tossed into the bake house oven. As Perloff explains:
“Our challenge as artists is to keep the metaphors of the play as alive as possible within the landscape of our own experience. As Jan Kott says in Shakespeare: Our Contemporary, Hamlet is a sponge that absorbs all that’s happening politically, socially, and spiritually in a culture. The day after the Trump election, I pulled Hamlet off the shelf. When I read the play the morning after the election, I could see the landscape of a prince who goes to bed in an ordered kingdom and wakes up in a world where everything is fake news and nothing is to be trusted. I felt incredibly unsettled by the play. Hamlet asks how we understand the relationship of our inner landscape to the world around us. Our inner landscape and the external world are always at odds with each other. That collision is what makes for drama.”
Dan Hiatt (Polonius) and John Douglas Thompson
in a scene from Hamlet (Photo by: Kevin Berne)
“The reason we have to fight to go back to the great plays now more than ever is that this is a moment that demands complexity and ambiguity, not simplicity and two-dimensional points of view. We make instant decisions on no information, with no nuance – you’re either a red state or a blue state. I’m not interested in easy equivalencies, in making Claudius Trump or turning Polonius into Jeff Sessions. You have to absolve yourself of clever comparisons (e.g. this is my Trumpian Hamlet, this is my Elizabethan Hamlet, this is my post-war Hamlet). What drama gives us is real nuance, real complexity. Is Hamlet a good man? There is no way to answer that. He does terrible things.”
Dominique Lozano as Gertrude with John Douglas Thompson
as her son, Hamlet (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

While "Location! Location! Location!" may be a golden rule in the real estate industry, it can also have a major influence on one's perspective of a performance. For the opening night of Hamlet I was lucky enough to be seated in the second row, center section of the orchestra. That location afforded me two remarkable opportunities. The first was to have absolutely no trouble hearing and being able to understand the actors as they delivered their lines (a challenge that pops up in productions where actors are rushing through their lines and/or performing in venues with poor acoustics). This allowed me the rare luxury of being able to sit back and revel in both the text and its delivery.

The second was the opportunity to witness an unintentional master class in internal acting. Some artists have developed the ability to so fully inhabit a character that every breath and blink of an eyelash seems to take on meaning. Great actors like Zoe Caldwell, Leonie Rysanek, and Angela Lansbury have been known to stand silently facing upstage during key scenes without ever losing the audience's attention.

Steven Anthony Jones as Claudius) with Dominique Lozano as
Gertrude in a scene from Hamlet (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Many acting teachers tell their students that one of the most important parts of acting is listening. What I witnessed on opening night should have been called "How to Steal A Performance of Hamlet Without Really Trying." During the first scene at court, my attention was riveted on the remarkably subtle portrayal of Hamlet's mother, Gertrude, being given by Dominique Lozano. Instead of merely looking at whoever was speaking as they moved around the stage, Lozano's internal acting telegraphed that her character was not only carefully listening, but internally calculating the importance of everything being said at court. Some people describe such layered and complex performances as resembling the peeling away of the layers of an onion. I prefer to describe Lozano's matronly Gertrude as possessing the crisp, flaky layers of a fine filo dough pastry.

Others in the cast included Steven Anthony Jones doing double duty as Claudius and the ghost of Hamlet's father, Anthony Fusco as Horatio, and Dan Hiatt as a blithering Polonius. Graham Beckel provided comic relief as the Player King and first gravedigger, with Teddy Spencer's Rosencrantz and Vincent J. Randazzo's Guildenstern acting as easily manipulated political tools. The impassioned performances by Teagle F. Bougere as Laertes and Rivka Borek as Ophelia left me strangely unmoved (partially due to their costuming).

Rivka Borek (Ophelia) and Teagle F. Bougere (Laertes)
in a scene from Hamlet (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

As is so often the case, some of Perloff's artistic choices confounded me. Her decision to stage the dumb show by the traveling players "as if it were a silent movie with melodrama music like in a Chaplin film" struck me as ridiculously misguided and gimmicky. The ghost's ability to set off electrical static in an abandoned warehouse (perhaps suggesting a radioactive wasteland like Chernobyl) came across as a gratuitous piece of shtick.

Rather than portraying Hamlet as a disillusioned college student, John Douglas Thompson's melancholy Dane was a much more mature character, whose confrontations with Claudius and Gertrude showcased an adult's anger, frustration, and stern rebuke for their greed, lust, and base amorality. Jomar Tagatac's appearance as Fortinbras in the play's final scene restored an important character whose presence is cut from some productions for the sake of expediency.

Performances of Hamlet continue through October 15 at the American Conservatory Theater (click here for tickets).

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