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Hamlet, by William Shakespeare
A more realistic, less vitriolic look at ASC's Hamlet
Saturday, May 2, 2009
Sorry to say that this is coming very late in the run; only two more performances are scheduled for this production of Hamlet. I feel, however, if you do have a chance to catch this Hamlet, do so.

I felt overall that this was the best Hamlet I have seen at the Tavern, and I have seen all of them. There were fine pieces of work in other ASC productions of this play that I remember clearly; however, this time more of it is fine, more of it is clear, more of it has a purpose that is understandable to the audience.

Matt Felten has grown tremendously since the first time he took on the role of Hamlet. Always in possession of a gift most Shakespearean actors would kill for, an ability to say and mean Shakespeare's language in a way that is understandable to most listeners, Matt was able to take on the character this time and take us with him. He rarely lost the edge. He very wisely does not strive to come off as a great actor, but as a really, really good craftsman, which is something very necessary to maintaining a role this big, this varied, this truly impossible to pull off perfectly. The performance was well balanced and kept us engaged from the first lines. A tough job to do, and well done.

A wonderful surprise for me tonight was Travis Smith as the ghost, and as the Player King. I had missed the ASC production "Of Mice and Men," only seeing a few minutes of Travis's work as Lennie - now I wish I had seen more. It's a rare gift to be very clear about speech and emotion and to have the kind of strong stage presence Mr. Smith has. The first scene between Hamlet and the ghost of his father was excellent, the actors well matched in ability. I look forward to seeing more of him in the future.

This was not Maurice Ralston's best Claudius - that was the first time he did the role. Maurice is best when the "demon" energy can come out, enough to make his roles fully human. The first Claudius was angry, jealous, and full of desire. There was no real desire in this Claudius. This Claudius was a gentleman who eventually reveals in his words that he has a darkly passionate side that does not quite come out in his actions. Maurice is fully capable of using that kind of passion - I would like to see it come out onstage.

This was Laura Cole's best Gertrude. In the bedroom scene with Matt she was able to tap something of the heart of the character that has eluded all of the actresses that have played this role at the Tavern - in fact, has eluded most modern actresses who have attempted the role. Gertrude is a woman of a time when women were property and they knew it. Though the timing of her marriage to Claudius was more than questionable, the actual act was a common one - once a woman was in royal position, if a husband died another was usually waiting to make a politically advantageous match. It would be something she would expect and think nothing of.

What I think makes for an interesting Gertrude is when she finds a passion in her new husband she never had with the first, even if he was a good man. That passion is a gift no woman could expect - and it would usually be welcome when it happened! That passion was completely missing in this performance until she was arguing with her son; then it became real and full of life's blood. Laura also did less physically and more with her inner work, which is the best choice for playing a Queen. I believed in her Gertrude in a way I have not been able to before.

Amee Vyas as Ophelia did a good job, but does not have the physical stillness that would help make Ophelia understandable. Amee is a physically active personality onstage; Ophelia is a pliant girl until she becomes mad, and that compliance and confusion should come from someone who truly does not know how to take action. The mad scene did go well, and I very much appreciated her decisions about her hair and face, which made the mad Ophelia so radically different from her former self. She was an Ophelia caught in a terrible dream, but not quite mad enough. She was also never a girl Hamlet might have truly loved. We need that from Ophelia.

Tony Brown's Polonius was sweetly funny and calm; Doug Graham's Horatio was steady, but could have used some more emotional attachment to what was going on. Daniel Parvis as the gravedigger was hilarious; Daniel can be counted on to make good creative choices and has the gift to pull them off very well. The way he ended the scene, almost like a devil going back to his comfy hell, was a delight.

Nicholas Faircloth was a decent Laertes in every sense of the word. The sword fight between him and Matt was one of the best I have seen at the Tavern in a very, very long time, full of excitement.

With a good, balanced supporting cast, Hamlet kept moving and kept moving us. Do go see it before it's gone.

King John, by William Shakespeare
An opportunity about to be missed
Friday, November 30, 2007
I did write a longer review of this play this morning at 5 am and the website lost it. Probably just as well. I went into a long rant about how the professional critics in town seem to be missing a few - things.

But, when it comes down to it, the one important thing they seem to be missing is what a special event King John has been. No, contrary to rumor, it is not a bad play. It is, in fact, rather more contemporary than many of the history plays, for the political maneuvering that controlled King John's time is in many ways still used today. If you boil the play down to the basics, this is corporate England. People get damaged in the power plays. You fight for power, then get creamed and someone else takes your place, someone young and not quite as ready as they should be. You fight to survive, and you die. Those are the rules of the game. It's a game King John both lost and won. This play makes it an interesting game.

Andrew Houchins plays the bastard Philip Faulconbridge, a fictional son of Richard Lionheart, who is a more active prototype of the Chorus of Henry V. He is the best of Choruses: a fool who brings home both the comedy and tragedy of the action. Some complain that the character is too talkative: hello, please, that is what choruses are supposed to do. Houchins is energetic, with biting humor and a full bodied (and voiced) pathos when it is called for.

Troy Willis plays a memorably human King John, wanting power but never quite enough of a king to have his own, living in the shadow of his dead brothers and his amazing mother Eleanor of Aquitaine (Kathy Simmons). One is almost glad that his father Henry II is never mentioned, for the character might be crushed by the weight of greater reputations. Troy gives John power by making him fully dimensional. The speech in which King John tells Hubert (Jeff Watkins) to kill his nephew Prince Arthur, hesitant, soft, frightened in his own intent, is rich in its own wish to not go through with the deed. When he gets his intention out, the mixture of relief and fear is carefully nuanced.

As for Hubert: this is one of Jeff Watkins' most emotionally charged roles, and he does it well. Caught between his orders and his love for the boy he is commanded to kill, he goes with his conscience, only to be pushed to the edge as events take one dreadful turn after another. It's an excellent performance, a role well suited to the man.

Laura Cole as Constance manages to keep her character intelligent and driven when other actresses resort to a more hysterical approach. She holds her own in a catfight with Eleanor. She never goes quite mad until everything is lost. It keeps the character interesting. I think much more can be done with Constance - it is one of Shakespeare's great overlooked roles for women. Laura has the ability - I just wish she would reach farther. I would like to see how the character grows if she does it again in a future production.

It's a great show with a strong cast - so why has this southeastern premiere been overlooked? I think pre-conceived notions about both the king and the play (which was actually very popular in the 17th and 19th centuries)combined with ASC's choice to continue to market the rarely done plays as "new plays by William Shakespeare" - a concept that outgrew itself quickly - have not helped. Once seen, the notions disappear. It has generated a good deal of discussion over the past few weeks. People leave the performance excited, and keep coming back to see it again.

I have told director Drew Reeves that I hope that King John becomes a signature piece for the ASC. It deserves to be done again, and it deserves to be seen again and again. If you have not taken a chance on it yet, give it a chance this weekend. You won't be disappointed.

by Sybille Pearson (book), David Shire (music), Richard Maltby, Jr. (lyrics)
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by Topher Payne
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Almost, Maine
by John Cariani
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by Sybille Pearson (book), David Shire (music), Richard Maltby, Jr. (lyrics)
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Daddy Long Legs
by John Caird (book) and Paul Gordon (songs)
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by Theresa Rebeck
Actor's Express
Midnight at the Masquerade
by The Murder Mystery Company
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by Topher Payne
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