As a theater practitioner, you know you’re watching someone else’s good production when you start thinking, “Yeah, I’m gonna steal that. .. “. Not borrow. Not “ be influenced by”. Full on STEAL.
While sitting in the Sunday matinee of the Spotlight Theater’s production of HAMLET, the impulses to thieve became too many for me to track and remember, which means the show went beyond good theater and into level of immersive storytelling rarely seen in a community theater production of Shakespeare. When the Spotlight says they’re going “beyond community theater”, they mean it.
Director Brian Sivesind seems to have a special feeling for Hamlet . His last year’s Romeo and Juliet was fine– quite good in moments– but suffered from some structural devices and a relatively green cast.
Not so in Denmark.
His team managed a tremendous feat: presenting Hamlet as an ensemble piece and placing the princely Dane square in the middle of a fully realized web of relationships, rather than setting him apart and watching him act in a bubble.
Sivesind makes a few significant choices that contribute to that ensemble feel. The first, is the book-ending of the play with Hamlet’s final exchange with Horatio, telling him to draw his breath in pain, to tell his story. And so the story begins, as a memory play from Horatio’s point of view, with some players brought forward, some parts cut out, a few things rearranged, and some details skimmed over in transitions.
The second choice is those transitions. Sivesind opts for a technique he’s used before, but never so effectively: slow-motion, stylized movement of the cast to the underscored music of Radiohead. The movement is evocative, and useful in setting the emotional tone for the scene to come and in clarifying some of Shakespeare’s “unscenes”– scenes that happen offstage but are spoken of by characters in the play.
The imagery that these stylized transitions create become a feast for the eyes. Two in particular– one where Hamlet looks upstage with a grated special illuminating him from above and beyond, and one where Hamlet is pulling Polonius’ dead body– resound in the dark parts of our minds.
The real nitty-gritty of Hamlet always happens in the acting, though. Jon Sampson, a local financial planner with an earlier career in professional theater, gives a stirring, energetic performance as Hamlet, but offers it up without the fussiness or self-consciousness that other actors have been prey to in the role. His work is seamless, clear, and rich. He makes it look easy, which undoubtedly means he racked his soul with each rehearsal.
What’s more, he illuminates the role better than several of the Hamlets I’ve seen in the last 15 years, making certain shifts in Hamlet’s emotional state perfectly understandable– even justifiable– which prevents Hamlet from grating on our nerves with his indecisiveness. Suddenly, Hamlet’s heretofore ridiculous sense of inactivity becomes perfectly plausible and sympathetic.
The rest of the ensemble is adroit; Danvir Singh Grewal’s Horatio is a particular strength. (How relieved I was to see a strong actor in the role as some Horatios are so often milque-toasty.) Kamala Kruszka’s Gertrude shines in the “closet scene” and Joe Cannon’s Claudius is at his best in the latter half of the play. All of these actors seemed to understand the incredibly high stakes of the action and the urgency in their performances were palpable. There were a few moments in the early acts where I wished I could feel that tension bubbling just under the surface, but the urgency came along when it needed.
One of the huge assets of this production, undoubtedly, is the text and vocal coaching of Jennifer Sampson. Buoyant, bright and seemingly effortless, the treatment of the language in this play is top-notch by every single actor on the stage– not one excepted. In fact, I heard only one misspoken word in the entirety of the show. Add to that Jon Sampson’s ability to use the full register of his buttery voice– from tenor to low baritone– and this show is, at its core, a truly pleasurable listening experience.
The costumes, designed by Ellie Sivesind, are functional and fashionable– modern but without too much reference to time and place. The black, white and grays of the set, lighting and costumes make for a pulled together noir feel. Particularly good are the backlit elements of Jarred Clowes’ lighting design and the singularly purposeful use of red at key moments.
The cutting of the text is sleek, pragmatic and purposeful (but I still think there are one or two things that I could cut even more!) and some slight re-arranging of text works seamlessly for the structure established by Sivesind. The other-worldly style of the movement is effective in the overall concept of Horatio’s memory, but could be improved by the actors’ focusing more specifically on their movement choices and use of their body instruments (Sampson, Sing-Grewal, and Miguel Torres, excepted). The use of slow-mo for pivotal elements of the story– the murder of Polonius and the final sword-fight– are potent, but perhaps a tad overdrawn in some spots. I also wish they could have been sped up in part three of the production, as that’s when the actions of the story are snowballing toward their tragic end.
The use of Radiohead’s music to underscore the story gives the play an added ethereal boost and is one of my favorite elements of the style of the show. The direction, technical style and design possess that just-right level of minimalism; it is complete but not flashy, nothing’s extraneous, but nothing’s missing.
All in all, Sivesind’s troupe shows us the essentials of Hamlet for not just a modern audience– for any audience. This isn’t about “relevance” or “history” or “modernism” or “the classics”. This production is the story of a group of people with a stack of big, big problems– and the places their choices take them.
Hamlet continues its run at The Spotlight Theater in Bakersfield through April 3rd. Tickets are $15-$20. The Spotlight Theater is located at 1622 19th Street in Downtown Bakersfield.