Friday, Aug. 26, 2011

Haunting In The Best Way Possible

Fools For Tragedy's IN MY MIND'S EYE

By Russ Bickerstaff
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Talented actress Stephanie Staszak opened the first door into the theatre. Equally talented stage actress Shannon Tyburski opened the second door. With this kind of talent opening the doors, it’s really no surprise that In My Mind’s Eye has a great cast. (Still would've been nice to see Staszak or Tyburski onstage, though.) This being a modification of Hamlet, the production has kind of a large ensemble. The cast assembled for Fools for Tragedy’s debut show consists largely of talent that wouldn't have any trouble holding one's attention for the entire length of one or two-person show. (There are a couple here who have.

Of course, talent tends to attract talent and the audience for opening night of In My Mind’s Eye consisted of a great deal of other really talented actors and actresses. And, what with this being one of Shakespeare’s greatest hits, one gets the feeling that in a sudden emergency, there would've been at least half a dozen people in the audience who could’ve jumped onstage and carried through a scene without slowing the pacing down for a second.

A quick glance at my personal records shows something like three Milwaukee stagings of Hamlet in the past four years. This particular mutation makes it four in five. And, though In My Mind’s Eye isn’t exactly Hamlet (certain scenes have been cut) I can honestly say that this is, for me, the single most satisfying Milwaukee staging of the classic in half a decade. Fools for Tragedy split the title character out among six different actors—each playing a different aspect of the tragic hero’s personality.

Here’s a quick glance at the Hamlet end of the cast:

--Kelly Doherty (second from the right) plays Hamlet the Son. She’s probably the least neurotic of the group. She's the one truly nice end of the character, effectively balancing out all of the rest of the erratic negativity. Doherty plays sober compassion extremely well, making the aggregate character of Hamlet substantially more vulnerable just by being onstage. This is a powerfully dark staging of Hamlet and though her performance is pretty far from being all sunshine and rainbows, she lends a tenderness to the stage that provides some of the endearing light that defines the production's darkest shadows. 

--Jennifer Gaul  (second from the left) plays Hamlet the Fool—Dazzlingly unhinged, Jennifer Gaul brilliantly renders the more playful energy of Hamlet’s madness. I know I’ve seen her onstage before, but I don’t ever recall her being allowed to be quite this much fun. The twisted clown plays out in both blaring, over-the-top madness and the subtler end of characterization. The make-up she’s using has some really tiny detailing on it that might not be all that visible from the back rows, but the range of emotion she’s able to get from it is kind of astonishing. (Credit there goes to either Michael Traynor or Jordan Gwiazdoski--both credited with make-up design for the show.) After seeing her here, I’m really hoping she shows-up in more this season. 

--Jordan Gwiazdowski (center bottom) plays the central Hamlet. As director of the show and co-creator of the concept for In My Mind's Eye, he's saddled himself with some of the character's more difficult moments. “To be or not to be,” is as impossible to get right here as it ever was, but the fact that Gwiazdowski is able to reach beyond the ubiquity of the text and get anything genuine out of it is quite an accomplishment. He’s also very physical in the role, which is something that sets this production apart from any professional, equity Shakespeare show.

Equity fight choreography can look pretty good, (I rather liked Lee Ernst's work on Richard III back in '03) but I have NEVER seen it come across in even a remotely convincing way. There's a passion in non-professional stage aggression that really needs to be seen more often because it's a major selling point for smaller theatre. The physical end of this show is extremely compelling. The aggression is amazing—particularly the “get thee to a nunnery” scene (Act 3, Scene 1 in the original) between Gwiazdowski as Hamlet and Ophelia (vividly played here with a very sweet poise by Elizabeth Shipe.) The aggression in that scene is intense. Back around '82 on the set of a major motion picture, there was a love scene between Harrison Ford and Sean Young that came across with such anger and hostility that the crew of the film referred to it as the "hate scene." This scene reaches that level of aggression and goes way beyond it. Gwiazdowski's Hamlet is dealing with inner struggles and channeling them out into aggression on Ophelia. Shipe does a tremendous job just standing up to it and playing a more concerned and . . . I guess . . . nurturing aggression (?) in response. It's a very powerful scene.

--Andrew Parchman (center top) plays Hamlet the Masque—the one side of his personality foremost in planning the bit with a staged play to try to ensnare the conscience of the man who killed his father. After impressive appearances in Carte Blanche’s Titus and its inaugural Short Play Fest, Parchman continues to deliver the kind of power that he’s shown in the recent past. Parchman has the capability of defining the concept of gravitas onstage. Here he is doing just precisely that. It's probably the most traditional and traditionally aggressive and sweepingly dramatic performance in the show. Not necessarily as much fun to do as the more offbeat stuff, but it’s absolutely essential to balance out all of the rest of the iconoclastic energy of the production. With Parchman's performance, we're getting a really powerful taste of what we'd expect from traditional Shakespeare. 

--Amber Smith (far left) plays Hamlet the Blade. She’s the vengeful side of Hamlet . . . very sensual and deadly. Costuming and movement felt like shades of J. O’Barr/Caliber Press circa 1990. She wasn’t playing O’Barr’s character (probably would’t even have any idea what I’m talking about here)—but I still think she does a much better job of dramatically playing a stylishly violent clown-faced force of vengeance  than the late Brandon Lee did on film in ’94. All esoterica aside, Amber Smith is enticingly dark in the role and looks fantastic. It’s like she just walked out of some early '90's goth punk action film that never actually existed. The sensuality she brings to the stage can be felt even when she’s not actually there. It’s haunting in the best way possible.    

--Elizabeth Whitford  (far right) plays Hamlet the Kingmaker—which is to say his executive, militaristic side. With a military-inspired jacket, a red armband and a riding crop, the diminutive Whitford has kind of a towering presence onstage. It doesn’t seem like she gets as many spoken moments onstage as the rest of the Hamlets, but she carries herself with so much authority that she doesn’t need to. Once again, Whitford shows versatility. Here she's kind of a Napoleon--physically quite small and unimposing but ridiculously dominant by sheer force of unwavering confidence--an image she's able to cultivate without speaking a word, for the most part. A typically impressive performance for Whitford.

 

Along with Gwiazdowski, Elizabeth Shipe is credited with costume design. Shipe's done a really good job with what could not have been much of a budget. The production manages to be really stylish without looking fabulously expensive. There are interesting, little visual gags that pop-up once in a while. It’s contemporary emo/goth costuming that occasionally bleeds over into comic areas. At one point Hamlet is wearing a The King and I  t-shirt that takes on a whole new context here. In another scene, Hamlet (Gwiazdowski,) Horatio (Michael Traynor)  and Marcellus (Bradley Novak) run into the ghost of Hamlet’s father (Michael Keiley.) In the scene, Novak is wearing . . . I think it was a hoodie . . .with the Ghostbusters 2 logo on it. Keiley shows up as the ghost and all three panic--like they're seeing a ghost. I've never seen that actually played out in a production of Hamlet before. And there on Marcellus' jacket is the classic '89 Ghostbusters 2 image. It's a witty little visual gag. Throughout the show, there are a few of these clever details peppering a ridiculously savvy production.

Fools For Tragedy’s  In My Mind’s Eye has two more performances: August 26th and 27th at 7:30 pm. For ticket reservations, click here.

 

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