You park your car in the Courthouse parking lot, and board a shuttle toward the top of the hill, where the remains of the Patapsco Female Institute rest. You buy your ticket and pick up your seat cushion, and sidle upward in a counterclockwise circle (the least steep traveling route), keeping the ruined boarding school always on your left. They say the ghost of a young student haunts the place. If so, she is not in evidence. You pass a concessions stand – hummus, hard crackers, candy, lemonade and the Pepsi line of beverages – and enter the theater, which is to say you enter the open air, where picnickers feast on the grass and two hundred chairs await your seat cushion.
A sort of preternatural quiet prevails: people are talking, but in hushed tones, and dulcimer music plays quietly over the speakers. In the background, you can hear the chittering of crickets. It is the night that you will hear the greatest of all ghost stories: Hamlet.
In the balm of a summer’s evening, in a setting more open than the Globe, a Shakespeare production has a dozen advantages it would not otherwise have, and Chesapeake Shakespeare’s production is savvy and sturdy enough to take advantage of them. I have some quibbles with the production but let me make this clear at the outset: this is a lovely way to spend your evening if you live in the Columbia-Ellicott City area, and particularly if you are new to Shakespeare, or to Hamlet. This production is forceful and lucid, and if you pay attention it will be impossible to mistake character, event or intent. On the night I saw the production, you could see how many people were seeing the play for the first time by the utterances of surprise and delight. For example, an audible gasp passed through the crowd when Gertrude (the excellent Jenny Leopold) announced that…well, you’ll just have to see what she announced.
Hamlet can be played a dozen different ways or more, and you can usually tell how it will go by the second scene. In it, Claudius (here done very solidly by Steve Beall) raises his ambiguous toast, mourning the sudden death of his brother and predecessor and simultaneously celebrating his own marriage to his brother’s widow and ascension to the throne. Here Beall is the essence of oilyness; his protestations of grief are obviously phony, and he can hardly wait to get to his feasts: the one on the table and the one in his bed. The party of courtiers around him are even more eager to leave the memory of the dead Hamlet, Senior behind them. It makes Hamlets’ (Patrick Kilpatrick) mournful bewilderment and alienation instantly comprehensible. The only person dressed in black (Kristina Lambdin’s costumes are spot-on), he is the teetotaler at the bar, the vegan at the hunter’s feast.
Kilpatrick’s Hamlet is a man in deep mourning, and he remains so throughout the play. He is not the melancholy Dane – his vapors are much too wet and dark for that – nor is he merely angry (although he is furiously rageful as well), as Graham Michael Hamilton’s Hamlet was at the Folger a few months ago. Rather, he is a man undone by grief, whose agony at losing his beloved father and then seeing his mother marry his uncle has separated him from his reason. He is a man of impulse, who remains nimble enough to avoid immediate danger to himself but who is too distracted to sustain a plan long enough to put it into action.
This approach has advantages and disadvantages. One advantage is that it answers one of the most bedeviling questions about the character of Hamlet – is he mad? – resoundingly in the affirmative, if we understand “madness” to mean irrationality. The one sentence description of Hamlet is this: it is a play in which the ghost of Hamlet’s father commands him to kill his uncle Claudius, which Hamlet fails to do for two hours and forty-five minutes, with disastrous results. Kilpatrick’s portrayal of Hamlet addled by sorrow helps explain this failure – for example, a man insecure in his wits might well suspect that his father’s visitation was a hallucination. But the downside is that it makes Hamlet less sympathetic. For example, within minutes of being visited by his old friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Hamlet has unlimbered his sword and is going after Rosencrantz’s throat. Although his instincts are ultimately correct, this Hamlet does not allow for the possibility of friendship, or of redemption. By giving us a Hamlet so untethered to good sense, so suspicious and hostile, we begin to understand Claudius’ desire to ship him to England and, after the manslaughter of Polonius (David Tabish), to end his life there.
Nonetheless, a Hamlet monomaniacal in his grief plays well in an open-air setting, where the ambient noise (inexplicably, we heard tires screeching all night) is an enemy to subtlety and quiet sounds. Some of director’s Ian Gallanar’s other choices, which may have been made to compensate for the effect of the setting, do not work as well. The Ghost of Hamlet’s father (Beall) is so loud and fierce that Kilpatrick’s Hamlet, reacting to his scene partner as he must, never puts away his short sword. This is an important role – Shakespeare played it himself when the Lord Chamberlain’s Men produced the play – in that he gives Hamlet a mission grounded in the eternal, not merely the temporal. But Beall’s blast-furnace interpretation robs it of both the paternal bond and the force of the spiritual imperative that Shakespeare wrote into it.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are made into whimsical creations – the Two Stooges – who play rock-scissors-paper to make important decisions. In certain interpretations of Hamlet (such as the 2007 production at the Shakespeare Theatre) it makes sense to incorporate the wit of Stoppard’s play directly into the production, but Shakespeare did not write these characters to be fools, and their antics in this Hamlet seem to be a distraction.
I regret to report that I did not much believe Tabish’s Polonius, particularly when he was in scene with his family, Laertes (Michael Boyton) and Ophelia (Rebecca Ellis). Director Gallanar (who, incidentally, has a good turn as the Gravedigger) appears to have decided to make them emphasize every one of their lines in that scene, with loud delivery and hand gestures, and as a result underscores no lines whatsoever. Ellis has a much more restrained, and successful, mad scene, and Boynton’s climactic fight scene with Hamlet is beautifully staged.
Fairness requires special mention of the superb Horatio which BJ Gailey puts on the stage. Horatio is frequently played as a cipher – Hamlet’s echo and setup man – but Gailey presents us with a Horatio who is a mature older friend, a man who we could easily see becoming Hamlet’s confidant. When he says, at the end of the play, “I am more an antique Roman than a Dane/Here’s yet some liquor left” before reaching for the poison glass it usually comes as a surprise, but with Gailey’s Horatio I believed it entirely.
This is not Gielgud or Jacobi or even Jeffrey Carlson, but it is a solid production in a fabulous setting. What better place than ghost-haunted ruins to see a play in which almost all the characters become ghosts?
By William Shakespeare
Produced by the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company
Directed by Ian Gallanar
Reviewed by Tim Treanor
Hamlet runs thru July 25, 2010.
For Details, Directions and Tickets, click here.