APT’s Hamlet is Awesome. Go See It.

Q: How’s Hamlet?

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The short answer, for American Players Theatre’s 2013 production is that it’s terrific and I’m still processing how terrific it is.

It took me to my APT happy place numerous times on Sunday night (a very muggy-buggy night), by which I mean I forgot I was watching a play, forgot I knew the actor playing the part, forgot I was anywhere but in the moment on the stage.

Part of me wants to stop there–to say, simply, it was great. Everyone who can get here should get here and see it.

Except this Hamlet was so freakingly brilliant–I thought about it for hours after I got home, and I’ve thought about it all day.

So at the risk of revealing my theatrical and Shakespearean ignorance (the vastness of which undiscovered country has not been mapped), here are some of those thoughts.
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I really think John Langs, the director, is brilliant. I know a theater production is a collaborative process, so my appreciation of the unnerving, stark, gorgeous, imposing, spare set goes to Takeshi Kata and Andrew Boyce. And the way the lighting shows two Hamlets–his posture saying one thing, his face saying another?  Credit for that goes to Michael A. Peterson.

The shadow seems much surer of itself here.

The shadow seems much surer of itself here.

But over and over, each component worked with every other component. The costumes worked with the set. And the set worked with the lighting. And the lighting emphasized the performances. And the performances were awesome. That’s to the director’s credit.

And having James Pickering–a really well-known Milwaukee actor who’s never appeared on the APT stage before–play the ghost and the player who plays the king parts and the gravedigger–that’s not just a casting idea. That’s an interpretive idea.

It made it seem like the ghost was showing up ALL THE TIME.

The child longing for the nuclear family that no longer exists.

The child longing for the nuclear family that no longer exists.

I know directors pluck from other performances (and there are a lot of Shakespeare casting traditions that would be utterly lost on me–I mean, I know about Cordelia/the fool, but that’s about it), and I know Langs directed Darragh Kennan in Hamlet in Seattle pretty recently, so I don’t know if this is the FIRST Hamlet to do that with the ghost/player/gravedigger, and I don’t know if the ghost has shown up other times when he doesn’t have lines, as he does in this performance (I won’t say where-all, because at least one of them seemed like a big risk with a big payoff), but it all went beyond “interpretive idea,” actually. It felt like vision. Genuine artistic vision.

What a counterpoint to Bassanio and Antonio from Merchant of Venice.

What a counterpoint to Bassanio and Antonio from Merchant of Venice.

Casting at APT is a complicated thing–eight plays done in repertory, core company and guest artist needs and contributions considered (who had a huge part last year, who had only supporting roles, who has one huge role this year and needs other supporting roles, who has reliable chemistry with who else)–so I can’t attribute the genius casting of this production of Hamlet to John Langs alone. Whoever had a hand in it, though–bravo.

If I’d been asked, prior to seeing this performance, to list Shakespeare’s really nasty kings, I’d have said Richard and Richard and then changed the subject, since I don’t know the histories as well as I ought. I might not have thought of Claudius at all. It’s not what I would typically think of as a meaty part.

But in Jim DeVita’s hands? Well, I hear Jim’s a fine cook, so I could say it’s like carving a chicken and understanding there’s good meat to be found places other than the drumstick and breast. Anyway, he found the meat. And chewed it up.

I mean, wow. When he says, of Fortinbras, “Holding a weak supposal of our worth,/ Or thinking by our late dear brother’s death / Our state to be disjoint and out of frame,” the delivery was so powerful I found myself wondering if Langs had somehow let Claudius deliver one of Hamlet’s speeches. (He didn’t. At least that one’s not Hamlet’s.)

“I like him not,” he says of Hamlet. And you think, “uh oh.”

I don’t mean Jim was upstaging or scene-stealing or anything bad. He just made it so clear how powerful Claudius was. How mean.

And unlike some productions, which maybe emphasize the Oedipal-incestuous-icky embraces between Hamlet and his Mom because no one can possibly imagine her really being turned on by whatever Claudius they’ve cast (the pompous guy in the Slings and Arrows production comes to mind, Season Two, Episode One, not the first season’s Claudius), De Vita and Staples have awesome onstage chemistry. One review found it “puzzling” why they were “hanging all over each other.” It didn’t puzzle me at all. Wouldn’t you, on him, were you she? And wouldn’t you, her, were you he? I, me, we would, methinks.

Gert and Claud

Gert and Claud

And then of course there’s Hamlet his own self.

Bravo, Matt Schwader. Bravo.

Mike Fischer’s review gets it right, that Matt’s “intensity adds bite and even menace to Hamlet’s encounters.” He calls him “white-hot,” and says he “handles Shakespeare’s verse as well as anyone at APT.” Yes, and yes, and yes.

I am enjoying reading and re-reading about Matt’s Hamlet process in his blog, “Bounded in a Nutshell.”

(He’s not just pretty. He’s also thinky.)

Matt’s explanation of his process helps explain one of the things that amazed me last night: the BIG ASS SPEECHES melded into the play so smoothly. They weren’t under-played, and not muted, but at no point did the production feel like this:

Druuuuuuuuummmmmmmroll: SOLILOQUY. (more stuff, more stuff, more stuff) and then
Druuuuuuummmmmroll: SOLILOQUY.

For example, leading up to the most famous of the BIG ASS SPEECHES, the “to be or not to be” one, because David Daniel’s Polonius is so strong, and Jim De Vita’s Claudius is so strong, and Christina Panfilio’s Ophelia is so strong, I found myself focused on what THEY were doing. Especially Ophelia. (I’ve never felt so pissed at Shakespeare for killing someone off as this Ophelia. She had spunk, damn it.)

Lou Grant to Mary Richards: "You've got spunk. I hate spunk."

Lou Grant to Mary Richards: “You’ve got spunk. I hate spunk.”

So when Matt came onstage and began speaking, to the audience, it took me a beat or two to realize that what he was saying was one of those speeches, even though I’d known what was coming.

In terms of speaking to the audience, as he was, part of the time, in this speech, Matt has this to say, “I’ve found that it is simply much more dramatic and engaging to watch an actor speak with another person (or group of persons, as is the case with direct address), than to be muttering to his or herself. Tremendous drama lives in the unexpected. What unexpected thing can happen to a person talking to his or her self? Not much. On the other hand, talking with an audience opens a flood of possibilities as to what might happen.”

The unexpected here is that Ophelia is listening, and she startles Hamlet, which was startling. In a good way. Because then the “get thee to a nunnery” lines seem startling, even though I knew they were coming.

Hamlet and Ophelia.

Hamlet and Ophelia.

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Matt did a fantastic job, which wasn’t startling. Anyone who’s watched him the last few years knew this was coming, that he’d earned it & that he could do it.

But what was startling overall was how his performance seemed utterly in service of the play.

I don’t mean I expected Matt to be selfish or show boaty. I’m just used to thinking of Hamlet as a vehicle for Hamlet (the character and the actor who plays him). This didn’t feel vehicular at all.

What a great play.

Another fantastic shot from Carissa Dixon

Another fantastic shot from Carissa Dixon

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(All these awesome images of the production are used with permission from the awesome Carissa Dixon.)

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