Thursday, February 22, 2007

Yes, We Have No Directors: Hamlet and Pericles at the American Shakespeare Center

The ongoing “Shakespeare in Washington” festival may entice Washington insiders with dozens of elaborate and not-so-elaborate stagings of the Bard of Avon’s most celebrated works. But true connoisseurs have known for some time that one of the best places in America to see a Shakespeare play is at the American Shakespeare Center, some three hours beyond the Beltway in Staunton, Virginia.

The Center is world-renowned for its eye-popping replica of the 17th-century Blackfriars Playhouse, the indoor theater where Shakespeare premiered his later plays. Productions at the ASC employ “universal staging practices,” which duplicate the conditions under which Elizabethan drama would have been performed. With no sets and no theatrical lighting, shows at the Blackfriars play out on a thrust stage, and the audience becomes a vital part of the action.

It’s an unusual way to see Shakespeare, and for students and well-versed playgoers alike it's often a revelation. For the 2007 “Actors’ Renaissance Season,” the Center has taken its quest for authenticity a few steps further, expanding its repertoire to include more obscure plays, slashing the actors’ rehearsal time in half, and dispensing with costume designers and directors altogether.

Yes, they have no directors -- and as the Center likes to remind us, neither did the actors of Shakespeare’s day. According to actor Rene Thornton, Jr., there’s “an interesting sense of freedom with the productions. You have no one to blame but yourself for everything you’re doing.” The productions have no budget to speak of, and with only a few days to assemble the show before opening night, the cast often requires a prompter (another fixture of Elizabethan theater) to get through the evening. Still, Actors’ Renaissance productions tend to make up in energy and spontaneity what they lack in polish, and they present material not often seen in the United States.

Hamlet may be the most familiar of Shakespeare's major tragedies, but for its current production the ASC has rather perversely chosen to stage the little-known First Quarto from 1603, otherwise known as “the bad quarto.” (In the 17th century, a “quarto” was a fairly cheap book, slightly larger than today’s average hardcover, though not very thick.) The First Quarto is the earliest, shortest and strangest of the many Hamlet texts, and most scholars believe it was reconstructed from memory by a minor actor just after the play’s premiere. Apparently his recall was less than perfect, because in the First Quarto Polonius is known as “Corambis,” Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are “Rossencraft” and “Gilderstone,” and Hamlet’s famous soliloquy begins with “To be, or not to be, aye there’s the point.”

The plot, however, is perfectly intact: There’s a ghost roaming in the halls of Elsinore, a man who has usurped the throne through murder and borderline-incest, a foolish counselor with a sad daughter, and a melancholy Dane who swears to set the kingdom right but somehow can’t bring himself to act. Plenty of collateral damage ensues as Hamlet draws closer to his final revenge. Still, the First Quarto inadvertently proves that the plot of Hamlet is simply not interesting in itself. It’s the multifaceted characters that make the play a great tragedy, and in this version that complexity has largely disappeared.

That said, Benjamin Curns makes an energetic Hamlet, bringing natural athleticism and charisma to a difficult part. James Keegan, the Center’s resident heavy, makes King Claudius a likable heel and a deft political operative. As the Queen, Vanessa Mandeville Moresco plays her bedroom scene with Hamlet like a duel to the death. Other highlights in the cast include Christopher Seiler’s bumbling “Corambis,” and Susan Heyward’s sweetly affecting “Ofelia” (a.k.a. Ophelia).

But the main problem here is the text. Although ASC demonstrates that the “bad” First Quarto of Hamlet can be staged effectively, it hasn’t proven that it should be staged at all -- especially when other, better versions of the play are more readily available. Despite solid performances and swift action, only die-hard Shakespeare cultists need seek ASC's Hamlet out.

Pericles, Prince of Tyre is one of Shakespeare’s lesser romances, though many scholars suspect that Shakespeare wasn’t entirely responsible for it. No one knows whether he revised an earlier playwright’s work, whether a later playwright revised him, whether there was some sort of collaboration, or whether the legendary Bard of Avon was simply having a very bad day. All we know is that there’s a major difference between the play’s pedestrian opening and its emotionally wracking finale -- and the latter feels much more like the Shakespeare we know and love. But even at its best, Pericles is a deliberately old-fashioned, medieval drama, with broad characters, heavy-handed moralizing, disjointed action, and sudden, unmotivated reversals of fortune.

The plot follows Pericles, an ideal ruler of a prosperous city-state, as he searches for a wife, becomes a husband and father, withstands two shipwrecks and one personal betrayal, yet manages to rise above all hardships by dint of his own goodness. Pericles’s daughter Marina undergoes a similar journey in the latter half of the play (the part Shakespeare is believed to have written): Kidnapped by pirates and sold into prostitution, Marina preserves her life and her virtue through hard work, intelligence, and unflinching moral rectitude.

Rene Thornton, Jr.’s lightweight Moor of Venice was the weakest link in ASC’s 2006 production of Othello, but he makes a perfect Pericles. Thornton's charm and wit redeem what might otherwise have been an unbearably sanctimonious character. Susan Heyward’s remarkable performance as Marina, one of Shakespeare's strongest female characters, carries us through the play’s second half. Heyward is more than up to the difficulties of this part, although her merely adequate singing voice falls short of the praise heaped on her character.

Unfortunately, ASC’s Pericles is marred by pervasive clownishness. There's a fine line between actors who don't take themselves seriously and actors who don't take their material seriously, and from time to time the supporting cast crosses it. As John Gower (a minor medieval poet known for versified moral treatises), John Harrell delivers his narration with a wink and a sidelong smirk, both of which set the wrong tone for the evening. Miriam Donald’s relentless mugging as Bawd, a brothel owner’s wife, saps all dramatic tension from her dialogues with Heyward.

A few minor glitches hurt the production, too. Thornton’s grief-stricken speeches in the play’s final act are undermined by the ugliest, most distracting black wig I've ever seen: It resembles a lifeless rodent of indeterminate species. And the excessive number of intermissions -- four, by my count -- prevents this show from gathering a full head of steam. Despite its flaws, Pericles is generally entertaining: It's strictly minor Shakespeare, but it moves swiftly, and the cast's exuberance is undeniable. With some tightening, and a bit less silliness for its own sake, this could become a terrific show.

The ASC's Actors’ Renaissance Season gives contemporary audiences a chance to see Shakespearean drama in a new light, and by eliminating the director and reducing rehearsal time, it actually replicates the conditions under which Elizabethan theater troupes actually worked (at least as far as today’s Equity rules will allow). Yet as bold as the experiment is, it doesn’t always pay off, sometimes because of problematic material and sometimes because of the actors' own questionable decisions. For Shakespeare buffs, it's still worth a look.

Hamlet and Pericles will play in repertory through March 25, with John Webster’s Duchess of Malfi, Ben Jonson’s The Devil is an Ass, and Paul Menzer’s new play The Brats of Clarence (a comic sequel to Richard III in the Elizabethan style).

Hamlet (First Quarto) and Pericles, Prince of Tyre. By William Shakespeare. At the American Shakespeare Center through March 25. About two and a half hours. Tickets $20 - $36. For more information or for tickets, call 1-877-MUCH-ADO, or visit

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