You've got to break some eggs to make a "Hamlet," or so it would appear from recent theatrical history and local production efforts.
Even well-intentioned stagings respectful of the text see fit not to leave Shakespeare's "well enough" alone, but instead feel compelled to meddle, in one way or another. Thus, all three recent area versions, including the ongoing one at Arena Stage, devised some alternation of setting to spice up the proceedings.
The New Playwrights' Theater's cabaret-style venture, being a lampoon, did it with impunity and did it best, in its ridiculous Civil War ambiance. The Folger production, now ended, styled its decor "Jacobean," and the Arena went for "Edwardian."
But to what end?Three "Hamlets" have I seen in the space of a week, and yet I wind up with the feeling that I haven't seen one.
We have this incessant itch to tamper, to remodel, to update; and we expend it the most on just those objects that are least in need of revision or retouching. From some standpoints, it is an understandable desire, of course. Classics - not just "Hamlet" and not just plays, but the embalmed masterworks of every medium - have a tendency to grow stale on us, especially with execessive repetition.
It also stands to reason that producers, directors and actors - like conductors, choreographers and filmmakers - would want to leave their own personal stamp on traditional material, to bring it to life in their own terms, and to reinterpret classics from the perspective of the contemporary world.
These things have always been so. What is unusual about the modern scene are the extremes between which it vacillates - on the one hand, an almost fetishistic reverence for authenticity, and on the other, deliberately perverse multilation. In the 20th century we have at our desposal the most sophisticated means and resources for rigorous scholarship, one effect of which has been an awe for historical exactitude - we've got to have TV costume dramas with every goblet and tapestry a certified replica, and we demand rebecs, lutes, krummhorns and countertenors in our early music performances.
On the other hand, we've become blandly accepting of Wagnerian music dramas performed on a bare stage, beatnik Christs who bleat their passion in rockability blues, nude Oedipuses leading group gropes and electronic Bach. And so it's been with "Hamlet," whose hero has been played as a pantywaist, a revolutionary, a catatonic intellectual and probably, somewhere or other beyond report, as a dope addict or a transvestile.
The uncanny things is the survival rate. The play may end with a stage strewn with corpses, but Shakespeare himself seems awfully hard to kill. Neither the Arena nor the Folger version of "Hamlet" - to take the two serious productions in recent local view - involved heavy transgressions against tradition or sense; both have been relatively sober-headed in this regard. Their weaknesses have been of a more basic order. Despite the shortcomings, it is amazing how much of the force of the drama has broken through.
In many respects, the merits and failing of the Arena and Folger stagings seemed complementary. From the best aspects of both, a really satisfying "Hamlet" might have been forged.
The Arena version, under the direction of Liviu Ciulei, stikes one as too sicklied o'er with the pale cast of refinement, Kristoffer Tabori, the Hamlet, looks splendid in the part, and his acting is obviously well-schooled, but in the end his performance seems monochromatic and as feigned as the hero's madness. Besides, the labores against a mediocre supporting cast and a too heavily sedated tempo.
Neither Ming Cho 'Lee's inconsistent, characterless set nor Marjorie Slaiman's turn-of-the-century costumes are a help. Ciulei's rationale for the choice of period was that he wanted the production "to relate to and answer today's questions . . . I want to create a recognizable world where the spector has points of orientation." How is it supposed to answer today's questions in a setting that is so clearly many yesterdays ago? If that's the intention, why not contemporary dress?
Ciulei's response is, "to set it as if ti were a play written precisely for our own times would be vulgar and too forced." This is an odd sort of sophistry. Why 1970 is vulgar and 1870 is not is anybody's guess, and to imagine that a contemporary audience will feel more oriented towards a Bismarckian no-man's land than to Shakespear's England or Hamlet's Denmark is a strange surmise indeed.
The Folger "Hamlet," under the direction of Jonathan Alper, seem off-balance in exactly opposite sense - all energy and thrust, but too often in a raw, unbuffed state. David Lloyd Gropman's setting and costumes reflected not so much a period as stylistic indecision, but at least the linesments had the grim aspect of tragedy. Several of the acting performances, including those of Laertes and Horatio, bordered on ineptitude, and in general the diction and line readings left much to be desired. Even Michael Tolaydo's Hamlet lapsed into whining and sing-song too often.
On the other hand, Tolaydo never once let one forget that Hamlet was a youth of venomoues with, intellectual acuity and tortured spirit; and in the scenes, for example, where he baits Polonius or Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, he rose to virtuous heights.
The cast boasted at least one other performance of unusual pith: Margaret Whitton's Ophelia, played not as a spineless wraith, but as a girl of real moral fiber, whose mad ravings might have seemed irrational to others but were perfectly lucid to her own disturbed imagination. And on the whole, the Folger's sporadically crude but doom-ridden momentum, never losing the name of action, was more theatrically rewarding than Arena's enervated polish.
Seeing two contrasting only partially successful "Hamlets" like this in a row prompts still another, more way-ward though - perhaps Shakespeare, purposely meant to keep future Ph. D candiates, theatrical pundits, directors and players frenzied to the end of time attempting to cope with the riddles his dramas pose.
A play like "Hamlet" is like a jigsaw puzzle with an infinite number of pieces but no inalienable, authorized solution - no picture on the top of the box to check against. That, of course, is part of its endlessly tantalizing fascination, and the secret of its immortality.