Tuesday, January 11, 2011

To be or not to be clueless

"Hamlet" is my favorite play; indeed, it may be my favorite piece of literature. I have been fortunate to have seen many great productions, including John Gielgud's, Richard Burton's, Christopher Plummer's, Lawrence Olivier's and, my personal favorite, Derek Jacobi's. I own several dvd versions of the play (among them the not-so-great Mel Gibson and Ethan Hawke, and the rather disappointing Kenneth Branagh). I have memorized much of the text, and rarely does a day go by that I do not find occasion to quote from it. Thus, every time I have the opportunity to see a production on stage, I make a point of going, because "Hamlet" like every truly great work of art, reveals new insights and secrets with each experience of it.

When I learned recently that UCLA's graduate theater department was doing "Hamlet" in downtown Los Angeles, I was, frankly, excited. My favorite play performed by the best young actors from one of our finest universities... I imagined that, no matter how uneven the performance, no matter how odd the staging, the sheer energy, talent and youth of the actors would make it worth seeing.

Now, I have put all of my children through "Hamlet" school, watching with each of them several versions of the play; and the youngest one, the eight-year-old, is no exception. He has seen Olivier's "Hamlet" twice with me, and is able to tell you how every member of the cast of characters dies. But he had not yet seen the play on stage, and suddenly I had a chance to expose him to my favorite work of art, interpreted by actors only twelve or fifteen years older than himself. What an opportunity! So I got tickets.

To quote Polonius: I will be brief. As the audience, a handful of friends and relatives of the actors, was filing out after the performance, my son asked me what I thought. I answered that, while I had seen many versions of "Hamlet," this was the first time I had seen a clueless version.

No one connected with this production had the slightest idea what to do with the play. There was no insight, no innovation, no vision, no revelation. The UCLA graduate theater department nearly managed to do what four hundred years of history have not: kill an immortal work of art.

The acting ranged from adequate to miserable. To call the staging minimal would be a bad joke: apart from a few battered chairs and a table, there was none. Now this might be alright, as the Burton "Hamlet" proved, if the acting is brilliant and compelling. At UCLA this was not the case. The girl who played Opehlia was the best of a sorry bunch, and her mad scene was well done. This should have been the bar above which the rest of the performance soared but, alas, it was the high point of the production. The only other spark of life was the gravedigger, played by a young man who affected a Brooklyn accent. And while this was entertaining, it was entirely out of step with the rest of the performances.

Hamlet, himself, was utterly clueless. The young actor who played him was a muscular black fellow with a shaved head and goatee, and when I first saw him I thought: This is going to be interesting -- Tupac Shakur as Hamlet. Far from it, he seemed more intent on getting the lines right than doing anything with them. He brought nothing of himself to the part and got nothing from it in return. There was no depth, no style, no nuance or intensity, and he committed virtually every mistake against which Hamlet warns the players in his admonitions to them. This was, of course, not entirely his fault. To paraphrase Laertes: The director... the director's to blame. Whether he was a professor or a student I do not know; but whoever he is, he ought to turn in his card.

I could go on... The lighting was amateurish, the sound effects silly, and the costumes were a sorry admission that either the program could not afford period ones, or that the director hadn't a clue how to set the play in any other era. The whole thing gave new meaning to the idea that "Hamlet" is a tragedy.

I will say this: If this is the best that the UCLA graduate theater department can do, then they should shut the program down and use the money for something useful -- like landscaping or more parking spaces. Shakespeare would be better served.