A “Hamlet” inspired by MUSE

This is the second musically-driven production this fall for the What You Will Shakespeare Company (WYW): the production is shaped by director Emily Murdoch’s MUSE play-list, meant to echo particular themes and ideas in William Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The soundtrack’s overwhelming and melodramatic orchestrations contrasted productively against the stripped-down performance space of the University Place Christian Church basement, mirroring the stark Denmark environment’s contrast to the depth, vitality, and stoic modernity of Hamlet’s emotions. The ensemble also reaffirmed there commitment to interesting stagings and use of unconventional spaces.

The troupe played to their strength of using unassuming spaces in interesting ways for staging purposes. The church basement is a wide and sanitized space; there is something perfect about the sparse, dingy, and whitewashed hall, entirely without ornamentation that implies a Denmark rotten in more ways than one. When I first entered, I found it odd that the chairs were arranged facing away from the grade school-esque proscenium stage, and were instead facing a large door frame at the back of the room topping three small steps with a utilitarian “EXIT” sign overhead. Using the back of the hall rather than the front allowed the actors to move about more freely and to establish hierarchy and reinforce power exchanges with the subtle use of steps. The large double-doors–always opened–were framed by two unremarkable casement-like windows, which provided the right amount of division during episodes of spying and asides, such as bedroom seen where Hamlet confronts Gertrude, Polonius spies from these windows. In a brilliant stroke of space adaptation, Hamlet stabs this “rat” between the space where the door is hinged to the wall. This particular audience was very active, laughing hard and often at the moments that allowed for it, which appropriately matched the very bodily production. In her anguish, a sweet and cheeky Ophelia (Kelsey Pigg) drops hard her book of religious devotions, conveying a surprising degree of frustration and interiority.

There are many hearty hugs between Hamlet (Jacob Lessing) and Horatio (Brittany Gerke). Hamlet tastefully falls to the ground with a heavy thud for his “rogue and peasant slave” speech (2.2), again as a display of frustration not overwrought as this is only done once despite his many soliloquies and opportunities to do so. Like the set, the cast seemed to work with the basic premises of their character’s roles in the world and build from there. Gertrude (Liana Alcantara) is notable for wearing her anxiety and tension in her face–a difficult skill to master even for professionals–that portrayed a little-spoke maternal and confused mother rather than one tied up in her queenly status. Polonius (Erik Allgood) was down-graded to goofball royal adviser, but with an “Office“-type twist. Wearing giant hipster glasses complemented by suspenders, his hurried managerial delivery really struck a funny-bone with this audience while maintaining the hint of malice and self-interest. This method was not lost on Hamlet either, played as the loyal young man too smart and too thoughtful for his own good, beleaguered by inaction.

This production presents a sense of artistic cohesion in its minimalist approach, not only in the set and staging choices, but in the students’ approach to character. In fact, the only point of excess was the MUSE soundtrack, which worked as an aural aesthetic balancing device. Hamlet is a character upset and pissed off from the very opening of this play, and often it is hard as an audience member to register emotionally the extent and stakes of his anger. As an emotionally capricious play that transitions between scenes of slapstick and others of death and drama, the soundtrack threaded through the production as a stabilizing force, resulting in a rare sense of cohesion and clarity at it’s end. The group’s final production this semester will be Moliere’s Tartuffe, the French impostor comedy, to be held at the same locale with hopefully sinilar interesting and unconventional results.

A “Peter Pan” at odds with its own youth

Lookingglass Theatre’s history of aerial productions (its tag phrase is, literally, “theatre without a net”) is ideally suited for a remounting of Amanda Dehnert‘s new adaptation of Scottish playwright J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, or The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up. The first incarnation of Peter Pan (A Play) was as a Northwestern University student production last February. While it has been thoroughly refined from the original 35-member cast to a baker’s dozen for the very different Water Tower space, it has retained the youthfulness of the original, which is in equal parts the production’s strength and weakness.

The play opens with a group of youngsters taking turns reading from Barrie’s book and vying for parts. The production pays careful attention to the literary themes of the play: namely storytelling, which is a curious approach given that the popularity of Peter Pan (and most audience knowledge of it) stems mainly from its cinematic productions. The staging is heavy in metatheatric emphasis. There is throwing about of the actual book throughout the production to signal the start and stop of the act of storytelling–a nice touch, but at times almost too self-aware.

The set is very minimalist, pandering to the major theme of a child’s imagination to fill in the rest. With the number of pulleys hanging about, I felt that the flying option was a bit underused for the amount of costuming dedicated to it. The costumes themselves, by Melissa Torchia, are kept sparse, with only hints of a pajama-like shape in order to keep the harnesses exposed at all times. However, the final fight scene is amazing. Choreographed by Matt Hawkins, the different levels of movement–on the ground and in the air between swirling platforms meant to serve as ships–relays a sense of chaos wherein everything is at stake and yet not. You are still aware of your neighbor patron, gasping at the swashbuckling near-misses along with you.

A majority of the cast members are student actors taken from the production at Northwestern last year. Lookingglass filled in the rest of the ensemble with more experienced performers, including Molly Brennan, Thomas Cox, Raymond Fox, and Matt Holzfeind, among others. This created a functional ensemble that could get the job done, but the lack of balance is at times obvious. As the lead, Ryan Nunn does a solid job of holding down the fort, so to speak, and creates a darkly cherubic Pan that is equal parts exciting and frustrating. The Lost Boys and Darling Children carry with them the weight that accompanies the sense of being a forgotten child. This is created by the many well-crafted moments of calm wandering about the stage used to intersperse the capricious action of Pan and the pirates. In light of all these qualities, the script’s lack of narrative focus works to expose the ensemble’s imbalance–it feels like the professionals work most the time to prop up the students rather than work together.

This production is definitely PG-13 and not targeted toward the younger set. Parents seem to be ignoring this as there were far too many 3- to 6-year-olds in my audience, but this may be due in part to the Halloween weekend. It is interested in playing up the dark elements of the story, particularly Pan’s disfunctionality, progeny, and problematic uniqueness. The script works hard to address who or what is Pan, and what he should represent: what Pan believes to be true becomes true even if it isn’t the truth. This thematic anchor seems to be Dehnert’s attempt at creating an unidealized Pan that pulls out the problems of our idealizing childhood, and laying it out for her audiences to see. This topical focus however results in a lack of narrative directionality in the play; one is never quite sure where we are headed on this trip with Pan.

That said, this production isn’t concerned with being critically evocative. It will run all the way up into January, targeting the holiday audiences that will break over Chicago’s Michigan Avenue soon. Critical appeal is simply not the goal. From this critical, adult perspective, Peter Pan (A Play) is not quite for kids, but also too youthful and underdeveloped in other ways. On the other hand, in my experience simply as a playgoer, I was never aware of time passing, and was completely taken up with the fiction before me from moment to moment, and surprised when intermission was announced.

For me this experience in fact mimics the progression and awareness of time for children: “heartless” and unaware of time or its consequences, the production places you in that uncaring and child-like consciousness rather than aesthetically catering to it. As a point of contrast, the Macy’s department store windows across the street from the theatre were already decked out for Christmas when we left (skipping Thanksgiving attire entirely). In a season where greed and glut are masked but glittering consumer trappings, Peter Pan (A Play) may be the most honest thing you see on Michigan Avenue this winter.

UPDATE 21 NOV 2010: This Sunday’s shows have been cancelled due to an injury to Peter Pan, whose understudy will be going on for the rest of this week. For more, click here. Lookingglass Theatre’s history of aerial productions (its tag phrase is, literally, “theatre without a net”) is ideally suited for a remounting of Amanda Dehnert’s new adaptation of Scottish playwright J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, or The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up. The first incarnation of Peter Pan (A Play) was as a Northwestern University student production last February. It has been thoroughly refined from the original 35-member cast to a baker’s dozen for the very different Water Tower space. It is this youthfulness that is in equal parts the production’s strength and weakness.