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Ever notice the Shakespearean acclimatization effect? How the Mind’s Ear can so quickly “go native” in Elizabethan/Jacobean English?
At the opening curtain of a Shakespeare revival, typically, you feel the actors might as well be speaking Telugu. Fifteen minutes later, you mysteriously find you can follow along at least as well as you could, say, eavesdropping on a city bus.
Rarely have I experienced this effect as dramatically as in director Lisa Peterson’s current staging of Hamlet at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF).
The play was produced on Ashland’s outdoor Elizabethan stage, which dictated broader gesticulation and enunciation than the past few indoor OSF stagings of recent years.
Then, too, Hamlet is such an all-time canonical chart-topper that many in the audience could mentally fill in their own subtitles to track the script.
But much of the credit for the assimilation effect must also go to headliner Danforth Comins in the title role.
His Hamlet is no brooding vacillator, but rather a whip-smart young Ivy Leaguer (or the medieval equivalent) fresh back from university, where he has learned – alas for him! – to confute far faster than he can act. “Thus is the native hue of resolution” not so much “sicklied o’er” as all-too-cunningly second-guessed into paralysis.
Which makes for a lot of entertaining interior dialogue among his inner selves. Not to mention his byplays with such stodgier Elsinorian compeers as his ghostly father (Richard Howard), his “uncle-stepfather” (Andrew Borba), “mother-aunt” (Robin Goodrin Nordli) and the meddlesome greybeard counsellor Polonius (Derrick Lee Weeden).
Or his bamboozlement of his hapless, clueless, traitorous school “chums” Rosenkrantz (Dylan Paul) and Guildenstern (Cedric Lamar).
First-rate performances in all these supporting roles, but judiciously muted as foils for Comins’ droll Dane.
He gives us the funniest Hamlet I’ve ever seen, with a glittering wit that skewers everyone around him like a “bare bodkin” (which turns out to mean a naked dagger, as I’d never realized until I saw Comins mime the “quietus” in his “to-be-or-not-to-be” peroration).
With his punk-goth eye makeup and black leather jerkin, Comins is even tricked out (by costume designer David Woolard) to recall filmic icons from such cult classics as A Clockwork Orange or, perhaps, Edward Scissorhands.
Outré styling also marks others in Hamlet’s age cohort. Ophelia (Jennie Greenberry) dresses in virginal white, but with a lavender-tinted coiffure; a frankly female Horatio (Christiana Clark) sports waist-length dreadlocks, but cross-dresses in masculine doublet and knee boots.
Such in-your-face fashion statements highlight director Peterson’s reading of the play as a clash of generations, as stated in her program notes. Against a phalanx of feudal, patriarchal elders in chain mail or brocades, young Hamlet squares off armed only with his post-modern irony and introspective scepticism.
To underscore the generational chasm, Peterson sets the production to a live Doom Metal soundtrack performed onstage by guitarist Scott Kelly, who doubles as the gravedigger in the Yorick scene.
And she even hands Comins such anachronistic props as an electronic guitar and a karaoke mike with which he wades into the audience soliciting spectators to fill in the blanks in his famous soliloquy.
But it all comes to nought in the end, and there’s nothing droll about the final hecatomb.
Hamlet, his elders and most of his peers wind up dead in a heap. His warrior alter-ego, young Fortinbras of Norway, stomps in to assume the Danish crown accord the late Sweet Prince full soldierly funereal pomp. Is that what you call pre-post-modernist grace or post-post-ironic perversity? The rest is silence….
Hamlet runs in Ashland for another week, until the oncoming autumn shuts down the Elizabethan Theatre.
Also running for one more week is The Winter’s Tale, which rounds out this year’s bill on the outdoor stage. It’s one of Shakespeare’s more rarely produced scripts, partly because it melds two parallel stories — a courtly melodrama and a pastoral idyll — that are wildly different in theme and tone and only loosely connected in plot.
What’s more, director Desdamona Chiang was assigned to inject an Asian theme into this year’s Winter’s Tale. Her solution — to set the courtly scenes in Han Dynasty China (roughly 200 B.C. – 200 A.D.) and the bucolic frolic in 19th century California — only compounded the problem. Elaborate staging and impressive performances never quite manage to relieve the cognitive dissonance.