Monday, January 23, 2017

"Hamlet" at Shotgun Players (reprise)

Shotgun Players photo by Pak Han
One last time, I got to see "Hamlet" with its roulette-style casting at Shotgun Players tonight as they closed their 25th anniversary season in fine style with the last of their repertory shows. Over the course of the year I've refrained from repeatedly posting as I've seen repeat performances of all five shows from Shotgun, especially "Hamlet," since no one in their right mind would want to read my musings on all 17 or 18 viewings of what is nominally the same play. But I will say this: each time I saw the show I saw something new. Not only did I see each of the actors play the lead role, but I also got to see all the actors interact in different ways with entirely different castings.

As a nice "bookend" to the season, I got to see Beth Wilmurt in the role of Hamlet tonight: the same casting I saw in my first viewing of the show at a dress rehearsal back in March. To say that nearly everything about the show was different would be an unfair exaggeration, but it's clear that producing the same play so many times over such a long period of time has allowed the show and its cast to grow and develop. The players have clearly discovered aspects of the characters and interesting elements of the play that were not in evidence early on. Particularly over the last couple of weeks, as the actors realized they were perhaps getting their last shots at playing any given role, they became more likely to take a chance, try something new, or just really dig deep and inhabit their characters in ways they either couldn't or wouldn't early in the season.

As a result, even seeing actors repeat roles, one always found something new and interesting, and the players made clear that they were enjoying the play, the process, and each other.

Thoughts on Hamlet

Prior to this season, I think I had only seen "Hamlet" twice, so although I had a certain general familiarity with the text, I didn't really know the play. Clearly after double-digit viewings at Shotgun and one more at Ashland last summer, I have a great deal more insight into the play. Although this particular version necessarily cut down the text to a size manageable for all seven players to handle all the parts as needed, it focused on important aspects of the play and characters in ways that a full version cannot. By stripping away a lot of political context (no mentions of Norway or Fortinbras in this version), it puts the focus on family relations in the royal family of Denmark and Polonius and his children. That has real value, as the full play is so long and complex that it's easy to miss some of the subplots. It also means that when I see a full version (as I did at Ashland), it lets me focus on the less familiar bits and how they relate to the story line that I've now seen so many times.

In short, I feel like I've gotten kind of a master course in (some aspects of) "Hamlet," as well as a grounding that should let me learn more when I inevitably see more versions in the future.

Another aspect I found helpful in my repeated viewings was the ability to focus away from the main action. For example, tonight as Hamlet's parents discussed Hamlet's madness with Polonius, Megan Trout as Ophelia stood off to the side, and when I focused on her for a good part of the scene, she was wordlessly and almost motionlessly evincing an amazing amount of emotional trauma. Indeed, familiarity with all the characters enabled me to pick a character in almost every performance who was not in the main flow of a given scene and watch the artistry of the performers in ways that I would likely have missed in a single viewing.

"Hamlet" is often viewed as a "star vehicle" for a single key player, since the titular character has such a huge number of lines. But by design, the roles in this cut are more balanced (though the storyline obviously still flows through Hamlet), and watching Ophelia's emotional descent or the spousal interactions of the various incarnations of the king and queen can be quite remarkable and rewarding. Indeed, tonight Kevin's Clarke's raging Claudius contrasts sharply with the icy, stoic portrayal of the same character by Beth Wilmurt, or the cagey, manipulative version put forth by David Sinaiko. And of course, different fathers necessitate different interactions with wife, son, counselor, and so on. The complexity that is often just handled by a director's casting choice becomes part of the daily flow in the ever-shifting cast of this "Hamlet."

And finally, I learned a lot from watching all the different actors tackling different roles every night. Aside from the staggering amount of preparation and rehearsal, the realization that it's not just a matter of learning lines and shaping one's own character, but also having to fit that character in with an always-different surrounding cast is quite jarring. I have enormous respect for actors, all actors, anyway. But the way these folks responded to this challenge, day after day, month after month, just proves to me that these are very special people.

Thoughts on Repertory

Anyone who has read this blog for a while or who knows me realizes my great affection for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. The fact that they can run eleven shows in rotating repertory over about a 9-month season every year, scheduling approximately a hundred actors and other artists, with understudies, is a logistical miracle. The fact that they also manage to produce some of the highest-quality shows I've seen anywhere is also incredible. Unfortunately, living so far from Ashland, I rarely get to see a show more than once in a season.

One of the great joys of this Shotgun repertory season has been getting to see (not just "Hamlet"!) all five shows not just more than once, but multiple times separated by fairly long stretches of time. It's clear that the actors have had a chance to explore and uncover new elements to their characters, as well as refining their performances both through repetition and through reflection and revisiting roles after periods where another show might have an exclusive run.

From my observations, it's clear to me that all of the shows were not only better in their repertory incarnations than when they first opened, they were also noticeably better in rep than when they finished their initial runs. Most productions never get that chance to grow again. I'm sure actors, designers, and directors all realize at the end of a run that they would like to have done something differently, but don't have the chance. In repertory, they had the ability to come back and try new things, and it really helped the quality of the shows.

Finally, I should just add a "shout out" to those behind the scenes who really had to scramble to make a rotating repertory season work. Virtually every aspect of running a repertory season is different from a normal, one-show-at-a-time season. The logistics of everything from ticket sales to printing and distributing programs to maintaining sets and costumes to negotiating and contracting performers is different, making this a very disruptive undertaking. From a consumer's perspective, I thought it went remarkably well.

Thoughts on Shotgun

Finally, a couple of notes about the company. As I have frequently noted elsewhere, I am a member of the Board of Directors at Shotgun, and though I try to maintain a certain detachment here, it's plain to see that I'm a fan. This 25th anniversary season represents a lot of the reasons for my enthusiasm and support.

I first got really involved with the Shotgun Players several years back when they undertook to produce Tom Stoppard's "The Coast of Utopia" trilogy over a three-year period. The first part one year, first two parts the next year, and all three parts the third. It was a massive undertaking for a small theater company, audacious and arguably insane. But I appreciated the can-do, underdog effort, and got behind it. And I thought the result was remarkably good, not just in the sense that it didn't fail, but in the sense that all three productions we very good, and by the third season, were in fact excellent.

When I heard the ideas for both "Hamlet Roulette" and the repertory season, I thought they were great ideas, but probably a little crazy. When I learned they had decided to do both in the same year, I knew it was a lot crazy, and potentially disastrous. But once again, the Shotgun crew has pulled it together, done a few things that were probably objectively impossible at the outset, and made it all work. I fully expected the cast of "Hamlet" to collectively pass out at the end of tonight's show, but they all came out after with smiles and enthusiasm, in spite of exhaustion. They all deserve a nice, long break.

I hope other local theaters take some lessons from this season. I worry that too many of them play things too safely, unwilling to take a chance on a difficult play or an odd schedule for fear of losing a chunk of their audience. Shotgun definitely proved this year that there is a goodly chunk of the market that responds well to innovative, challenging plays and approaches. I certainly don't expect that from every company, but it would be nice to see more of it around.

The next season will be quite different: no repertory, no wacky casting models. But some very challenging material that will surely cause a lot of discussion. I look forward to seeing where that takes us. But the memory of this season, insanity piled on insanity, will live for a long time around here.