Cuts in the full text of Hamlet are to be expected; still, it was startling for the Willful Company to begin its production with Claudius's and Gertrude's wedding party. But to coin a phrase, there was method to it. Director Sherry Saab staged Hamlet's later encounters with the Ghost as if the spirit was inhabiting Hamlet's body and was speaking through him. It sounds off-putting, but it worked, as did the updating of time and place to present-day Hollywood. If you're going to emphasize the soap-opera elements of the plot, then that's the place for it. The loss of the story's politics (and Fortinbras) was regrettable, but that's a lesser matter when so much was so right.
Sam Riley's Hamlet was the extraordinarily sure and talented center of this production. Beginning with the "too too solid flesh" speech, he grabbed attention and never let up. Although it was likely the director's conceit, he played the Ghost's possession of Hamlet on many layers simultaneously without losing the point of the scene or sense of the character. Was it an illusion? A bad trip? It didn't matter, it was a tour de force. But it was only one piece of the performance - Riley spoke with clear understanding, and he unselfconsciously showed the rage and confusion of a twentysomething caught up in events outside his control. He was simultaneously Shakespearean and contemporary, something rarely achieved, and his reality made the inevitable tragedy sad on a personal level.
And it was fully within the director's vision that all of these kids' lives were being destroyed by the machinations of "well-meaning" adults whose intentions are selfish and ultimately destructive. Claudius (David Sporer) was a slick mogul; Gertrude (Leslie Klug) was a Beverly Hills matron who drinks; Polonius (Dmitri Kutuzov) spouted platitudes but was completely ineffectual, leaving his kids to fend for themselves. Ophelia (Stephanie Skaff) was eager and vibrant and real, and completely at a loss when rejected (although drug use was not indicated, could it have been Ecstasy?). Horatio (Ben Upham) tried to make the best of a situation he didn't understand, and Laertes (Richard Tayloe) couldn't comprehend how the world could have changed so much in his time away. Rosencrantz (Kiyoko McCrae) and Guildenstern (Gibson), characters often cut, were given their full due - sure, they were classmates of Hamlet, but they were angling for jobs in Claudius's media empire. The Players (a very sharp Tayloe and the delightfully funny Amaya Toland) acted out a silent-movie version of events, like overdone Hollywood ham.
It was also small, seemingly inconsequential details that gave this Hamlet its substance: Hamlet covering his eyes as he aimed Claudius's own gun while his uncle/stepfather was praying; Guildentstern cleaning up drops of blood; actual London postcards being the letters from England; Gertrude determinedly drinking from the poisoned goblet (she's an alcoholic - of course she'd drink!); Hamlet reading Nietzsche, Polonius reading Jacqueline Susann. Settings (Maha Saab) were basic but well thought out, from the benches that served a multiplicity of purposes (as well as a seemingly inexhaustible supply of area rugs) to details like the gold records on the wall of Claudius's office, or the Sopranos poster in Laertes's room. Costumes (Shana Tabor) seemed at first to come from the actors' own closets, but then a great outfit showed up that was at one with the setting (Gertrude's negligée) or completely in character (Ophelia's mad-scene dress had a pattern of daisies). The lighting (uncredited) didn't differentiate much between indoor and outdoor scenes, but there was so much else going on that completely absorbed attention. In fact, this being L.A., the only unanswered question was why didn't anyone send these kids into therapy?
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Copyright 2001 David Mackler