Saturday, June 20, 2009

Loose Canon's HAMLET

By Russ Bickerstaff
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Wisconsin’s Loose Canon Theatre Company has been around for a few years. (Evidently there’s one in Dublin that’s been around for quite a bit longer. And why not? It's a really clever name) According to the Wisconsin company’s profile, the local group was founded in ’05 by Brian Rott and a few others in the UW-Parkside Theatre Department. Their latest production is a staging of Shakespeare’s Hamlet at the Marian Center.


No less than four spaces as The Marian Center have been used by various theatre companies over the course of the past several years. The space Loose Canon is using Hamlet is the converted science lab on the 4th floor that formerly served as home for the late Dramatists’ Theatre Group. On entering the building, I was about to head up the stairs when a gentleman in a vintage elevator operator’s outfit asked me if I was going to see Hamlet. I said I was and he promptly led me into an elevator and up to the fourth floor making small talk along the way. It was my first experience with Loose Canon. As I would discover, the gentleman in question was Cody Kreidler—an actor also playing Rosencranz, a grave digger and an actor.


Once inside the space, the seating for the show is much more standard than I’ve seen in the past. All chairs face the same direction. A single aisle down the center would be occasionally used by actors. The sound of a heavy storm echoed through the space until all was ready and all were seated. House lights fell and the show started.


The idea behind the mood of this particular production of Hamlet was to give it a feel of the roaring ‘20’s. This has been done before in Milwaukee as recently as 2007 when Off The Wall did a staging of Hamlet set in the same era. Where as Jeremy Welter’s performance in that production as the tortured Prince of Denmark came across as something of dark, murderous Emo kid, the character here comes across as something of a jazz-age hipster. Brian Rott, who also directed the show and serves as Loose Canon Artistic Director does a pretty good job with the role. Of the newer actors I’d not been familiar with prior to this show (that’s most of them, actually . . . ) Rott seems to show the most promise here. Jessi Miller’s performance as Ophelia to Rott’s Hamlet shows some promise. Far from the dazzlingly dark performance Liz Mistele gave in the role at Off The Wall in 2008, Miller has a casually dreamy quality in the role


The interesting thing about most of the rest of the performances here is that . . . Rott has made a concerted effort to get the actors to avoid overly melodramatic oration, which would normally be all too easy with Shakespeare in general and Hamlet in particular. However, there doesn’t seem to have been as much of an effort to get the actors to understand word choice—not just why these characters are saying what they’re saying, but why they’re using the words their using. Particularly amongst the less experienced members of the cast, this means that the emotion and mood in all the scenes seems right, but for the most part they’re simply reciting lines. Shakespeare is rarely performed this way. It’s an oddly disembodied experience. As an audience, we care about these characters and their emotions, but without much attention to specifics, they may as well be merely repeating the word, “rhubarb” over and over and over again . . . 

Honestly, I’m overreacting a bit here . . . every actor in the cast holds a brilliant moment in the play at some point . . . one of the single most outsanding here being Jake Russo in the role of Laertes. Russo’s acted professionally in a number of productions of Shakespeare's work. Here his experience and the weight of his stage prsence manages to steal nearly every scene that he’s in . . . which is a bit unfair, as much of the rest of the cast doesn’t have the benefit of his experience onstage.


Liberties have been taken with the staging of the script, but that’s what the script’s there for in the first place. Without significant effort to surprise with elements of staging, a production of Hamlet  can come across as a performance of Shakespeare’s greatest hits . . . clichés from one of Shakespeare’s most popular plays rush one after the other in constant motion and it’s easy to get lost in all of them . . .I’ve still yet to see ANY performance of the “To Be Or Not To Be” speech (live, recorded or otherwise) done even remotely well . . . it’s probably the single most delicate piece of text that guy ever wrote for the stage . . .


Aside from the acting, the staging is kind of hit-or-miss. The pageantry of formality in the bigger family scenes doesn’t really come across all that well . . . The ghost of Hamlet’s father (an actor/group of actors dressed in black with a photocopy of a face illuminated by a single blue LED jutting out from the chest) can either look positively spectral or totally goofy depending on the angle you’re seeing him at .. .  . Hamlet’s play-within-the-play to catch the conscious of Claudius feels weak and perfunctory when it should be more of a revelation. There ARE some inspired moments here. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern seem whimsically aware of their fate throughout the production, functioning a bit as comic clowns all too aware of their own disposability. It’s oddly reassuring to see them doing shots with Hamlet at some dive bar during their dialogue with him. The comic aspect of the play is welcome contrast against all the scheming and bloodshed.


Sadly, the most incongruous bit of comedy comes at the end. (I assume it was comedy . . .it’s a bit difficult to tell . . . it was played quite seriously.) The dual between Laertes and Hamlet ends in people smearing each other with a thick, white substance from aluminum pie pans. It almost sort of seems to make some sort of sense in the context of the show, but it’s difficult to explain why. At some point it becomes all too clear that the two men are dueling with canes and there’s this thick, white liquid that represents death or blood or whatever . . . if you’re going to use aluminum pie pan imagery, it’s GOING to bring-up the visual of the custard cream pie. If you’re resigned to that, why not go all the way and actually USE custard cream? (Or at least shaving cream.)

(I could see a very polished version of this production where in the comic relief is comic relief and the drama is very dramatic, in a very naturalistic sense and everything in the dramatic end of the production is very serious except that whenever somebody dies, they get hit in the face with a cream pie . . . and everyone would react to it with a straight face with shock or disgust or whatever . . . but they'd just be lying there with a cream covered pie tine on their faces. . . )

As uneven as it is, I can’t stress enough that I really like the production. The experimental end of the play doesn’t always work to its advantage, but it’s great to see a fresh, young theatre group trying something reasonably new with a play that is unreasonably old. Admission is $20 and I seem to remember it being something like 3 ½ hours long (I could be wrong, it was listed elsewhere as 2 ½ hours,) but it’s well worth the trouble if you’ve got the right frame of mind. With a cast full of people who already have further work lined-up, this is a good opportunity to see a cast consisting largely of people who will be inhabiting some of the smaller stages in and around Milwaukee for the next couple of years . . .

Loose Canon’s production of Hamlet runs June 19 – 27th at Marian Center’s Roasary Hall Room 425 (formerly the Dramatist’s Sutdio Theatre.)

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