Aug 5, 2010

Ashland Blogging III: Danlet

Pale, ginger-haired Dan Donohue is one of our great actors, possessed of the Hamish Linklater-ish skill for giving his leading men an edge of nerdy comedy and his fools a reedy Everyguy appeal, and possessed of a facility with language that makes every line--in Shakespeare or otherwise--ring with immediacy and clarity in the present moment. He has technique to burn but it's trained like a searchlight on a raw, roiling, utterly individual inner life. This mix of sinew and brains, precision and unpredictability, makes him an ideal American Hamlet, and in Bill Rauch's mostly thrilling production at Oregon Shakes, close to a definitive one.

Much has been made of Rauch's outre directorial touches--the female Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, the deaf Hamlet Senior, the hip-hop Players--but what really stands out about the direction is the idiosyncratic but somehow perfect ways Rauch has cast several key roles: Jeffrey King's bald, hulking, ultra-butch Claudius, a military-corporate bruiser slimeball who nevertheless gives his crucial scene of unsuccessful prayer all the irony and abjection it contains; Susannah Flood's quirky, blowsy Ophelia, who's like a comic extension of Richard Elmore's doddering Polonius but who later enacts a disarmingly willful meltdown; Greta Oglesby's weary-eyed Gertrude, whose queenly poise seems to teeter on the edge of teary breakdown, or exhaustion, or both; Armando Duran's wondering, rumpled Horatio.

Donohue himself, though he'd also be the choice of a more conventional director, gives his Hamlet odd, uncontainable contours; Rauch has staged most of the melancholy prince's monologues and asides as freeze-frames in a glaring low light, and Donohue attacks these with an inward-directed ferocity that's as stunning as it is emotionally wrenching.

The threads fray a bit in the show's last turn: This Hamlet largely loses his edge and his urgency in England, and when he returns to an Elsinore that's gone even further off the rails (after a bold but probably ill-advised quartet of soap-operatic dysfunction between Laertes, Ophelia, Claudius, and Gertrude), he seems bracingly sane by comparison, and less likely than ever to set things right. But this is still far and away the best Hamlet I've seen onstage (certainly better than OSF's last one, with Marco Barricelli, in 2000, and better than Judelet), and one that, by showing the very age and body of our time its form and pressure, qualifies as a Hamlet for the ages.

I cared much less for Ping Chong's Throne of Blood (and worry for its critical fortunes when it goes to BAM in November). I'll probably write more about this when I get a chance, but the central problem with putting Kurosawa's film of Macbeth onstage is that while the film doesn't use Shakespeare's dialogue but instead "translates" many of the play's images and themes into striking visuals, that kind of visual storytelling is much harder to pull off onstage. And in Chong's stark but mostly inert stage production, the images can't do all the work and the dialogue doesn't exactly sing. There are many complicated and layered differences--cultural, dramaturgical, aesthetic--between Shakespeare's and Kurosawa's versions of the story that are fascinating to contemplate, but this spoken-language gap is not one of them.

NB: Donohue has some thoughts about playing Hamlet, among other things, here.

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