Hamlet ; Coastal Disturbances ; Jay Johnson: The Two and Only!
At Lenox-based Shakespeare & Company, Hamlet (in repertory through September 2) is a family affair, with lively artistic director Tina Packer playing Gertrude to son Jason Asprey’s Dane. To keep things from getting too kinky at Elsinore, Packer’s husband, Dennis Krausnick, brings a light touch to busybody Polonius rather than act Claudius in the dark, muscular production, which “centers the play in the electrical synapse impulses of Hamlet’s dying brain, creating flashes of memory or imagination that codify a life.” Whoops, I’ve given away the ending: Hamlet dies. Here it takes him just a sleek three hours to do it, and the jarring metallic sounds that signify synaptic twitching also suggest the clanging shut of doors in the prison that is Denmark.
HAMLET: There is always something at S&C not dreamt of in our philosophy.
This is the first assault on Hamlet in S&C’s 29-year history. Eliminating Shakespeare’s first scene, Eleanor Holdridge’s pared-down modern-dress staging begins on the border of “the undiscovered country” and flashes back, offering a clear, compelling, if hardly transcendent reading. Like all of S&C’s productions, it is fully understood and well spoken. Packer may be cast against type as a carnal yet heartbreakingly motherly Gertrude, but when she wraps her trained larynx around the queen’s beautiful account of the drowning of Ophelia, she wrings every ounce of lyricism from it. And the intense, wiry Asprey makes the self-questioning soliloquies almost conversational.
S&C’s Gertrude and Claudius (Nigel Gore as a calculating monarch and smooth political operator) can’t keep their newly joined hands off each other, to the bitter disgust of Asprey’s Hamlet (not to mention the comic repulsion of Tom Wells’s Rosencrantz and Kenajuan Bentley’s Guildenstern). The production’s core is the mother-son connection; the long first act (which stretches into Shakespeare’s fourth) has as its climax the “closet scene,” in which Hamlet brutally urges Gertrude to stop sleeping with Claudius. But Holdridge does not stint the political. Gore brings a feeling of Oval Office corruption to Claudius’s scheming with Laertes over how to off Hamlet, and Fortinbras does not wind up on the cutting-room floor. In fact, though Asprey’s Hamlet can get whiny when in the throes of the personal, his self-lacerating rumination on Fortinbras’s willingness to go to war “even for an eggshell” is penetrating.
Much of the production rushes at you, and that renders its understatements effective. John Windsor-Cunningham’s Ghost, trailing a blood-red ribbon that slips like memory through his grieving son’s fingers, lobbies for revenge with melancholy dignity. And there are a few twists that surprise by working: Hamlet, dressed in a doublet borrowed from the Players (here just the King), passes out scripts of The Mousetrap and has Gertrude and Claudius play it as in an amateur theatricale out of which the king, finally understanding the accusation, bursts like an angry whirlwind. There is always something at S&C not dreamt of in our philosophy — even in the endlessly interpreted Hamlet.
In Stockbridge, the Berkshire Theatre Festival has revived Tina Howe’s Tony-nominated 1986 Coastal Disturbances (through July 29) as a vehicle for Law & Order’s Annie Parisse, whose TV character wound up stuffed in a trunk. I count myself an admirer of the elegant, elegiac, absurdist Howe, whom I had considered, Obie for Distinguished Playwriting notwithstanding, underappreciated. But this play belongs in the trunk with assistant DA Alexandra Borgia.
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