“a double varnish”: or, the Tragedians of Oz

We’ll put on those shall praise your excellence
And set a double varnish on the fame
The Frenchman gave you; bring you in fine together
And wager on your heads. He, being remiss,
Most generous, and free from all contriving,
Will not peruse the foils; so that with ease,
Or with a little shuffling, you may choose
A sword unbated, and, in a pass of practice,
Requite him for your father.
— Hamlet, Claudio, IV.vii

A little more than a week ago, I was in Kansas City grading AP Literature and Language exams. This was not my first time at the Great Grade-a-Thon, but it was my first time in Missouri’s largest city. On the penultimate night, I treated myself to the Heart of America Shakespeare Festival‘s Hamlet premiere, which was celebrating both its 25th anniversary in Southmoreland Park and the naming of the street alongside the outdoor venue (modeled after New York’s Central Park festival) after its founder and chairman, Marilyn Strauss. It was a special evening added to the premiere, renaming, and that the show was fronted by television actor Nathan Darrow, most recently of House of Cards and Preacher. While the sloping hill was free to the public, I sprung for the $25 reserved plastic seats since I didn’t have my usual kit of blanket, cooler, and camping chair we keep handy for park Shakespeares. It was a beautiful evening flush with fireflies and a crowd of more than two hundred, by my quick headcount. The business district and conference hotels downtown had been, well, a ghost town for lack of a better word, so it was nice to see that there were in fact people living in the land of the Royals. I’d also had enough distance from the last Hamlet I’d seen—I often feel over-saturated by the Danish play—that I was in the right frame of mind and open, whether it be hawks or handsaws.

What I got was a production gilded o’re with far too much stuff that did not meaningfully seem to contribute to what seemed to be the argument of the production: What if Hamlet is to blame?

The entirely built Elsinore, replete with discovery space, two double-breasted entrances, two french door entrances, and a working balcony with french doors. Featured in front is a statue of King Hamlet which never reappears after Act 1.

It is without doubt that Strauss (who was recovering in the hospital at the time of the production from a recent stroke) has worked for decades to find initiatives to fund free and public Shakespeare. Missouri in general is a state struggling to stay afloat, and we all know arts schemes are the first things to go in such a situation. Thus, Strauss’ work is all the more commendable. Unfortunately, that money seems to have been spent on a great deal of accoutrement that, at a certain point, defeated the point of theatre out-of-doors. Outdoors, theatre can extend into our reality, co-opt and appropriate it for unexpected and exciting results. KC Shakes found ways to put the walls back up. For example, all of the actors were with microphones, and high-quality speakers were strewn about the area. Tripping over the web of electric cables was a real issue for elderly patrons. There were also two towers rigged with a full complement lights that you would find at a professional indoor theatre, including multiple spots. There was fully composed music between each scene (which always means a 3-hr show or more), a voice box manipulation for the Ghost, and cock and other sound effects. There was no room left for the imagination to participate in the play event as everything was hyper-literal and being spelled out for us. For example, when Horatio refers to the likeness of Hamlet’s father, he has a full-sized statue, crafted to look like the actor playing the Ghost, to which to refer.

While Horatio’s gesture to the unnecessary statue was worrisome, the first sign that I thought we were in some real trouble was the Ghost’s entrance. It was not enough that fog machines were hard at work on both sides of the stage to convey “night” even as we had a stunning Kansas City sunset immediately behind the stage to do that work for us. (Not to mention all the scene setting in the text.) The Ghost was kitted-out with his own personal fog machine. Cool…in theory. In practice, this meant that every time he moved, fog billowed and frothed out from under both arm pits of John Rensenhouse. There was no way for me to click-in to the interesting vocal work he was doing with his delivery when competing with the suggestion that his armpit hairs were ablaze, not to mention the distortion of the voice box seemingly ripped from the video game patch known as Dehumanizer. For a film, for an indoor theatre, some of these choices make sense. All of these choices for an outdoor production did not cohere for me into an interpretation. I was struggling: what did I, as an audience member, have to gain from literalizing a ghost story?

Left: John Rensenhause (Ghost of the late king, Hamlet’s father). Right: Nathan Darrow (Hamlet, Prince of Denmark).

To complement the sense that the Ghost was more Wizard of Oz than murdered Scandinavian king were the costumes. Rather than vaguely medieval, Renaissance, contemporary, or abstract (and to be clear, I am not necessarily a fan of period costume as I have never actually seen it done correctly or effectively), the costume design was mid-seventeenth century French on steroids with a dash of Forever 21. (The clever folks over at Frock Flicks have been carefully following this fad for hyper-sexy tween costumes in ostensibly period television, including Reign and Still Star Crossed, among others.) As the production went on, it felt like a visual world cobbled together from Bioshock InfiniteBeauty and the Beast (Polonius being Cogsworth, of course), and Frozen. Nearly all the men were in three pieces with tall boots that were entirely identical across the cast. There were lots and lots of wigs and long hair on the men, and wigs and curls for days piled high on all the women to compete with bustles and trim that would make a costumer’s fingers weep. Claudius was played by the tall and commanding yet somehow effete Bruce Roach, which, with a dark and luxurious wig, made him a spot-on Charles II. (That is, seventeenth-century England, not France. He was groomed in the French court, I suppose.) Everyone seemed to be drowning in their costumes, most especially and most pointedly, Ophelia in a dress so pink and so heavy I was sure one of the double-breasted french-door entrances would take her down at any moment.

Truthfully, had Ophelia been intended to be swimming in her costumes, that could have been quite interesting and quite meaningful as it might refer to the expectations of political life and patrilineal society to which she inevitably succumbs. And, aside from the Tragedians from the City, Hillary Clemens was doing the most actual acting of any of her colleagues. As a fellow playgoer pointed out during intermission, she wasn’t playing the submissive mad, but had an anger and an agency that seemed fully informed by the text. Alas, the production found a way to rob Clemens of even this leeway.

Left: Nathan Darrow (Hamlet). Right: Hilllary Clemens (Ophelia).

It is nothing new to say that the “to be” speech stresses actors and directors out. It is famous, dark, and everyone in your audience knows it. I am one of those who cannot help but mutter along with the actor under my breath. (To be fair, I also do it to the speeches know as the Quality of Mercy and the Forgeries of Jealousy.) Moving the speech around is a good strategy to unsettle your audience and make the speech seem new again, as the Barbican experimented with recently. But KC Shakes did something I had not run across  before: turn the soliloquy, a moment intended to dramatize a character working through a problem as a show of interiority which we do not otherwise get with theatre, into a speech. Hamlet (Nathan Darrow) waits until Ophelia is onstage with her tokens before giving the speech directly to her. Hamlet actually takes out a bare bodkin (a small, unsheathed blade, typically understood as a dick joke) and holds it to his throat so that Ophelia must run to stop him. What is strongly implied by this choice is that Hamlet mansplains suicide to Ophelia, metaphorically planting the idea that she should kill herself, and literally leaving her with a dagger in her hands to do so. It is a bizarre choice, from which we do learn something useful: if you want to find a way to make Hamlet unsympathetic (again, I like the proposition), then you are stuck with also sacrificing both Ophelia’s agency over her own death and the complexity that implies.

To be frank, all of these “double varnished” choices may have worked to compelling ends had the cast been different. By that, I mean that as an observer there seemed to be a great deal of confusion in regards to male casting. All mention of Fortinbras is removed from the production (not uncommon), so Hamlet is left with two illegitimate foils: Horatio (Jake Walker) and Laertes (Matt Schwader). Both were acting head-to-toe, as they say, and had a clear sense of their relationship with Hamlet, and those features that proved impediments to it. Rosencrantz (Darren Kennedy) and Guildenstern (Collin Vorbeck) made a series of smart comedic choices, understanding the implied directions embedded in their dialogue. For example, as Rosencrantz is forced to confront Hamlet about why they are in Denmark, Guildenstern furiously shakes his head behind Hamlet’s so that Rosencrantz won’t cave. As soon as Hamlet turns around to ask Guildenstern, he crumbles. It is all in the text. Schwader, as Laertes, was particularly compelling and showed a wide range of emotion in relatively brief periods. While perhaps too classically “pretty,” I left the production very interested in what his approach to the title role may have been.

Left: Matt Rapport (First Gravedigger/Reynaldo). Right: R.H. Wilhoit (Second Gravedigger).

This is all to say that the male ensemble surrounding Darrow’s Hamlet showed up to do theatre. Darrow showed up to do film. I can’t get a sense of Darrow’s theatre credits outside Kansas City, his hometown; his performance belied all the tell-tale habits of an actor trained for the camera’s eye and not ours. The two big ones for me were constantly talking with his hands directly in front of his mouth (ignoring Hamlet’s advice not to saw the air) and leaving his mouth hanging open when not speaking. It was like he didn’t realize he needed to keep acting when he wasn’t talking; we were still looking at him. His soliloquies were all over the place in that he didn’t decide who he was talking to. Some Shakespeare festivals stage soliloquies as direct addresses to the audience. (To clarify, soliloquies and direct address are not the same thing, in the sixteenth century or now.) Fewer Shakespeare festivals prefer that a soliloquy is a conversation with oneself, a struggle or an equivocation, as Mackers would have it. Darrow was all over the place, switching between approaches, and sometimes talking to the Elsinore facade with his back to the audience. He didn’t know how to cross the stage to other actors when it was time to address their characters, and decided to flop his long limbs around and lean on this interpretation of physicalizing madness rather than be purposeful with his movements or attend to blocking. “Anything so overdone is from the purpose of playing.”

His performance aside, Darrow is the right age for Hamlet: early 30s, as the play implies. So why did he decide to play the petulant teen? His whine and his flailing limbs, his flat-lining of the complexities of his speeches (due to no discernible pitch control), and the direct address to Ophelia all imply the teen we had a habit of seeing in the 1990s. Again, this could be interesting as it helps with the argument that the production is interested in an unsympathetic Hamlet, a Hamlet that, while the victim, willingly participates in the system and structures of power that bring about his demise.

Center: Mark Robbins (Player King). Left: Kendra Keller (Player Queen), Justin Barron (Player), Mauricio Miranda (Player), and Freddy Acevedo (Player). Right: Darren Kennedy (Rosencrantz), and Colin Vorbeck (Guildenstern).

In a production with a lead who doesn’t know what he is doing (or wants to do), it was all the more surprising to discover one of the more satisfying interpretations of the Tragedians of the City and the Mousetrap—the part of the play most interested in thinking about of what theatre can be capable. The Players’ scenes (II.ii and III.ii) were supplemented with actual tumbling feats and lute playing, again all implied, embedded direction in the text that gives a number of easily thrown-away lines new life. As the Players, Justin Barrow, Mauricio Miranda, and Freddy Acevedo were dressed in clownish garb smacking something of commedia but adorned with skulls. (Does Yorick need foreshadowing?) As the Player King, Mark Robbins gave what is now my favorite delivery of the speech of Pyrrhus and Priam, making clear that the dramatic episode is a meditation on royal inaction with which Hamlet himself struggles. Robbins enacts the battle with his walking cane, dropping the audiences within and without the fiction of the play onto an ancient Greek battlefield—a trick Hamlet robs from The Tragedy of Gonzalo by his own insertions. Oddly, the Player scenes were the most coherent, thoughtful, and successful moments in a production whose source text is, at base, concerned with the poetics of feigning. The Tragedians in this production asked me, as a playgoer, to imaginatively participate in their storytelling, to capitalize on my memory and impressions to consider the white lies I perform to get around or cope with moments when I am unwilling to take action. If only Hamlet would have asked the same of me.

  • Heart of America Shakespeare Festival’s production of Hamlet plays in Southmoreland Park, Kansas City, MO, 13 June – 2 July 2017.
  • Admission is free but you can also reserve blanket spots and seats for $25 (although these seem tone selling out quick). Call (816) 531-7728 to make a reservation.

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