Friday, Oct. 23, 2009

Goats, Monkeys, Hamlet. Etc.

Free Performance of Shakespeare’s Greatest Hits in A Third Ward Gallery.

By Russ Bickerstaff
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It’s a spacious studio space in the Third Ward/Walker’s Point area of town. Classy, old white wood and white brick marred only slightly by some pseudo-sorta-kinda Jackson Pollock paintings to my right. A large audience sits on white wooden folding chairs for Goats & Monkeys’ Thursday night staged reading of Hamlet. It may not be a fully staged production of Shakespeare’s classic, but this IS my third time seeing some sort of staging of the play in as many theatre seasons. The last two fully staged productions I’d seen of the tragedy had been a bit of a mix . . .with occasional sparkles of brilliance. Off The Wall Theatre had a powerful performance of Liz Mistele as Ophelia . . . The Loose Cannon production ended in a custard cream pie fight. . . and here Goats And Monkeys has assembled a dream cast of local high-end Equity actors performing in a staged reading.

Goats And Monkeys’ Paula Suozzi introduced the evening . . . the first of three G&M readings of Hamlet this weekend. Somewhere in a very cordial introduction, she happens to mention that the Saturday reading is the one year anniversary of the phone call that let her know Milwaukee Shakespeare would be no more. Kind of an interesting event to observe with a reading of Hamlet.

It wasn’t long before the reading started . . . and some really impressive voices of some really professional actors start to breathe life into some really classic Shakespeare. Brian J. Gill makes for a charismatic title character . . . like much of the rest of the play, he’s doing a straight ahead, un-skewed portrayal of the tragic hero.  Jonathan Smoots’ powerful voice serves as a really strong emotional center to the play. Smoots anchors-in as Claudius with an admirably intense gravity. Norman Moses quite nearly steals a few scenes in high comic form as the arrogant Polonius. Peter Silbert manages as much with his performance as the gravedigger. Clearly he’s been here before . . .

Shakespeare always has a poetic line or two that feels more familiar than the rest, but Hamlet reads a bit like a William Shakespeare greatest hits collection. This is particularly apparent during a staged reading where the text is so easy to focus on. Even in full production, I can’t help but hear imaginary applause in my head whenever a line is spoken that time has made cliché. Ahem: Neither a borrower nor a lender be, what a piece of work is man, to thine own self be true, the play's the thing, something is rotten in the state of Denmark, murder most foul, get thee to a nunnery and so on . . . and then there are the word pairings that others have been carved into titles of other (mostly sci-fi) works including time out of joint, infinite jest, all my sins remembered uhh . . . the undiscovered country and so on . . . it can be really distracting with all of the highly recognizable dialogue that's been torn out of context and placed into general usage. It's like Shakespeare's showing-off from beyond the grave with this one.

Nowhere is this more evident than Hamlet’s To Be Or Not To Be  speech, which is so brilliantly written that it’s almost impossible to do without sounding really amateurish. Gill did a really good job of not making the speech sound abusrd, but I have a nagging suspicion that there have only been a handful of times that the speech has been done well in the 400 years since it was written. It’s one of those bits of text that’s impossible to get right, even for someone as charismatic, talented and skillful as Gill.

And as nice as it was to hear a passionate, straight-ahead auditory rendering of Hamlet performed by an almost entirely Equity cast, I missed some of those things that were done so well in the two fully-staged productions I’d seen of the tragedy in the past two years. I missed the little quirks and imperfections that made the epic tragedy seem real and immediate. The custard cream pie fight at the end of Loose Cannon’s production may have seemed a bit intentionally undignified, but the production had its moments. And I miss Liz Mistele as Ophelia. It’s been three years now since I saw her perform in Off The Wall’s production. She played the character with a deep-rooted strength that made it all the more dazzling to watch her completely lose it at the end of the play. Laura Gray is a really, really great actress. Her portrayal of Ophelia here is more traditional and it lends an emotionally affecting vulnerability to the role that makes for an interesting dynamic with the title character, but having seen the Off The Wall production, I’ll probably always prefer a stronger Ophelia.Still--it IS really satisfying to see a staged reading of a very, very traditional realization of a classic tragedy. Seeing a cast of classically trained actors get onstage behind music stands to read Hamlet is well worth the trouble of finding parking somewhere between the Third Ward and Walker’s Point.

Goats & Monkeys’
Free staged reading of Hamlet runs through the 24th. Reservations are strongly suggested and can be made by emailing: reservations@goatsandmonkeys.org

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