Every director has an idea or two about who Hamlet is. Joe Banno (who writes opera criticism for the Washington City Paper) has at least four. With a quartet of actors arguing the title character’s internal debates among themselves, Banno’s vividly realized, very ’90s version of the play about the Dane with a decision-making problem is striking from the start—and not least because it starts at the end, with a snippet of the final sword fight.
What Banno has put onstage for the Folger is a fractured facsimile of the text you learned in high school, turned in upon itself in one place, exploded and arrayed like a particularly intricate puzzle in another, cut to the bone and cutting always to the chase. And when, early on, the conniving King Claudius delivers his accession speech—quite literally over the corpse of the monarch he’s secretly murdered—you realize with a shiver that Banno and his keenly intelligent dramaturge, Cam Magee, have done something newly interesting with theater’s most endlessly interesting artifact.
That prickly feeling only intensifies after the ghost of Hamlet’s father delivers the news of his murder to the grieving prince, as three subsidiary Hamlets step from the wings to engage their principal (Holly Twyford) in the first of those hair-splitting interior dialogues (quadralogues?) about when and how to act on that earth-shattering information. But what’s most exciting is that the playful intellectual who is chief among Banno’s own myriad personalities hasn’t been allowed to dominate the stage-savvy showman.
This is a swift, sure-footed production that seduces with its visuals as surely as with its confident approach to Shakespeare’s verbiage: From the filmy white scarf that flutters from the rafters in an early scene to the mirrored outlines of Tony Cisek’s set to the fabulously chic Queen Gertrude (glamorously Annette Bening-ish Lucy Newman-Williams), this Hamlet plays to the audience’s eyes as smoothly as its press-conscious Claudius (slick Rick Foucheux) plays to the cameras. Justine Scherer’s wardrobe design has the younger Danes, especially, looking as if they just stepped out of this fall’s Banana Republic catalog; Scott Burgess’ sound and Dan Covey’s lighting, too, are witty and usually subtle contributions to an evening of smart stagecraft.
Twyford charmed audiences a couple of seasons ago with the confident Gen-X Juliet she created (and won a Helen Hayes Award for) in Banno’s equally savvy Romeo and Juliet, so it was easy to hope she could handle herself well as Hamlet. Sharing the role shifts some of the weight from her slight shoulders, but it surely creates as many challenges as it solves. A subsidiary gimmick that keeps Twyford onstage, observing scenes the character normally isn’t around to see, also adds work for the actress. So it’s a pleasure to report that she meets the challenge admirably, building a teenage hero with a voice always on the edge of fraying and an intonation that always carries more than a hint of steel.
Banno and Magee’s chief conceit holds up best when it fragments and illuminates the play’s great character-defining soliloquies, in which a rash Kate Norris (as the most militant part of Hamlet’s increasingly divided mind) tends to argue for peremptory action, while Magee (doing onstage duty as one of the three sub-Hamlets) and Steve Carpenter (the fourth Hamlet) offer more cautious counsel. The “To be or not to be” speech, in fact, is more gracefully shaped and more immediately lucid here than I’ve ever seen it—so I’m inclined to forgive the fact that the drama’s second half, with its slow, inevitable winding toward a conclusion that’s eventually forced on the eternally noncommittal prince, unearths fewer riches from the multiple-personality mine.
Among the production’s few actively jarring notes is Bill Largess—not because the Washington area’s most accomplished Shavian actor doesn’t handle Shakespeare blithely and well, but because it’s tough to figure out how his 40-something Horatio and Twyford’s teen-ish Hamlet came to be such tight friends. Even so, he’s probably a net asset to the evening, adding as he does (along with Foucheux) an adult seriousness and polish to balance the younger cast members’ brash energy.
Not that there isn’t inventiveness aplenty elsewhere. Polonius’ farewell to Laertes becomes a kind of call and response between a father (Frederick Strother) who knows the answers to all of life’s questions and a son (Howard W. Overshown) who’s been lectured about them all before. Moments earlier, Banno’s staging lets Laertes catch Hamlet and Sarah Ripard’s eerily charismatic Ophelia necking madly in a hallway—which puts an ironic new spin on the siblings’ parting scene. Similarly, the fact that Polonius’ family members are the only black courtiers attending the Danish royals adds weight to Polonius’ fear that Hamlet is only toying with his daughter’s affections.
Rosencrantz (Edward Baird Wilford) and Guildenstern (Colleen Delany), meanwhile, are black-clad, heroin-chic city kids, and their initial meeting with the senior royals is staged to emphasize the generation gap between Hamlet’s friends and the adults who would exploit their friendship. Even Hamlet’s smirking “Man delights not/me: no, nor woman neither” exchange with the twosome gets twisted here—to explain how, precisely, would ruin the fun, just as describing Banno’s reimagining of the setting for Hamlet’s “Alas, poor Yorick” speech alongside Ophelia’s corpse would rob that moment of its deliciously macabre impact. (Suffice it to say that, after seeing Brad Waller’s scene-stealing turn as the Gravedigger, you’ll feel a queasy tremor next time you pick up your nail trimmers.)
Some may find it all too clever, too conceptual, too studied, or too analytical an approach. I can only report that it all works—undeniably. Theater is at its very best an interactive art, an exchange of energy and ideas, and dedicated theatergoers spend countless hours and countless dollars in search of the kind of visceral charge that goes through an audience when a production fires the imagination of the whole house at once. Right now, the Folger is one place they can find it.
Would that the same could be said about Side Man, the Broadway hit that shuttered recently and shuffled its way down to the Kennedy Center. When I said in an intermission conversation that Warren Leight’s musical memory play was coming across like a less angry Death of a Salesman, one of my most reliably perceptive theatergoing companions shot back with “Right—if Neil Simon had written it.” And that about sums it up.
Andrew McCarthy, onstage for a shocking percentage of the two-and-a-half-hour evening, is a jazz trumpeter’s son who remembers, in clips and quips, the hardships his father’s disconnected personality and peculiar passion visited upon his family. There are an alcoholic mom, a gang of colorful band-member buddies, and a statement of sorts about the men (only the men) who made America swing for a few decades and were swept away by the advent of Elvis and his peers.
The ironic one-liners land solidly, the script is professionally shaped, and the performances are agreeable at worst and downright hysterical at best (special kudos to Michael Mastro’s lisping, laugh-out-loud Ziggy). Leight even manages, briefly, to make the audience care enough about his characters to fall silent when one of them cracks. But the play never really makes a place for itself in your heart, and it all evaporates from memory before you’ve even pulled your coat on. CP