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On Stage: World of Shakespeare mirrors current events

  • Ophelia, played by Erica Wisor, in a production of “Hamlet” by the Hampshire Shakespeare Company. COURTESY Jenn Burdick

  • Jennifer Abeles



For The Recorder
Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Shakespeare is politically controversial again. Have you heard? “Julius Caesar” has been an uneventfully-produced stock item in outdoor summer theater for decades (at least) until someone puts a blonde wig on the title character, possibly made by the same wig-maker as our president’s, and suddenly all hell breaks loose.

No such hullabaloo has yet erupted around the Hampshire Shakespeare 2017 offerings of “Hamlet” or Tom Stoppard’s “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead,” although these savvy productions (directed by Ingrid Oslund and Calvin Atkinson respectively) also underscore the uncanny potential for Shakespeare’s works to shed light on our own contemporary obsessions, anxieties and challenges.

I’m just going to say it: You should go to the UMASS Renaissance Center and see these plays. The Center itself is a gorgeous spot — a serene cottage set on a lovely piece of land that will certainly remind you of “the beauty of the world.” While Hamlet commands, “Look you … this majestical roof fretted with golden fire,” you will be sitting in a serene field lit by the setting sun, and the hilarious and profound word-play of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern might make you believe again that humanity truly is “the paragon of animals.”

‘Hamlet’

For 400 years, “Hamlet” has beguiled audiences into considering the proper personal and political response to a “strange eruption in our state,” and the title character has been successfully interpreted in a variety of ways, from melancholy (Sir Lawrence Olivier) to manic (Mel Gibson), clueless (Ethan Hawke) to brilliant (Kenneth Branagh). Such is the power of the play that each of these interpretations works.

Isaac “Izzy” Salant brings a different validity to the role in this production. Watching the verbally-dexterous Salant abuse his mother, friends, and lover, charge and roar from scene to scene, turn Laertes’ — played with impassioned virility by Mary Frances Noser — grief for his sister into a pissing contest, I marveled that I had never before noticed what an insufferable prep-school punk Hamlet is. And why do we still let people like this have power?

By the time Hamlet insists that he’d be content to rule within a nutshell, I seriously doubt it, convinced rather that this “observed of all observers,” as Ophelia calls him, not only enjoys the limelight but appreciates his father’s death as expedience to be endlessly noticed. This Hamlet uses political turmoil to gratify his own emotionally immature hunger for attention.

Oslund acknowledges the possible correlations between a play about unwelcome shifts in power and our present moment, but reminded me that this play takes place in Denmark, not America, even if her production is set in the current-day, with a dancey clubland soundtrack rather than the more traditional fife and drums.

More purposefully, Oslund — a playwright, choreographer and director — insists on “full arcs for all, but particularly the female characters,” whose circumvention in other productions, she feels, can interrupt the complexity and beauty of the play.

Ophelia — for centuries an emblem of innocent vulnerability — is played with exceptional expressiveness by Erica Wisor, whose charisma and tender singing voice bring the requisite dewy loveliness to the role while she also conveys her impatience with the men around her who reduce the full value of her personhood to a mere pawn in their destructive game. The love she offers the men in her life is much more worthwhile than their useless tricks, deceptions and strategems, which leave the stage littered with corpses by the end, but — you know — men are idiots and Denmark would likely look much different if the Danes wised up and allowed either Gertrude or Ophelia to rule instead. Their representations here show that they love their men out of generosity — their own virtue and strength — rather than due to any intrinsic worth of the men themselves.

I’m not sure if this is one of the “complete arcs” Oslund intended, but Ophelia’s ghostly reappearance just as Laertes assures Hamlet that “mine and my father’s death come not upon thee,” neglecting to mention his sister, shows us how Ophelia’s death was not so much the death of a person as another excuse for men to compete and fight. While I was initially startled by the presence onstage in Act V of a character who died in Act IV, I later came around to agreeing that Ophelia deserves to be counted in this way amongst the “casual slaughters” of the play.

The thoughtless cruelty that causes Ophelia’s demise is mirrored in Claudius’ weak request that his queen not drink from his poisoned cup. If the lady has protested too much, the man has not protested near enough to preserve his wife’s life. Kimberly Salditt-Poulin and Chris Devine portray an affecting world-weariness as Gertrude and Claudius, incapable of effectively managing either the toxic masculinity of the young man they’ve raised or the impending war their actions have set in motion.

The twinned horror of oppression and indifference is nicely underscored in the role changes of Tyler Nowakowski, who has the makings of an excellent physical actor. In his role of Gravedigger, he tells jokes as he chucks human skulls around, while in his role of the Player Queen — a cringing boy-player — he draws attention to the unseen violence visited upon sexualized innocents.

Dramturg Zach Apony, the cast, and directors do an excellent job emphasizing the negligible value of individual human lives within “a militarized, police state,” as Sara Kerr, the formidably icy actor who plays Marcellus announces this to be while checking the audience’s papers before the play begins. Into this brutal, unstable milieu bumble Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, looking more confused and anxious than I’ve ever seen them, and given what’s happening in the world — Denmark, America, wherever — they are the ones I relate to the most.

‘Rosencrantz and
Guildenstern are Dead’

We hear as an aside at the end of “Hamlet” that they are dead, but so is everyone else and besides, they’re nobodies, so who cares? This is the question Tom Stoppard explores in his 1966 play, which is the companion-piece to Hampshire Shakespeare’s line-up this season, and played by the same cast, they work incredibly well together. Minor characters who are virtually indistinguishable from one another, why should we give Rosencrantz and Guildenstern a second thought?

Well, they are us, quite simply. They are, as Atkinson says, “the common man suffering as a result of politically powerful characters not caring about them.” Stoppard’s play reverses our attention, so that while Hamlet soliloquizes in the background, we learn more about how his old school chums think and feel, connect with one another, and find meaning in their bit-part existences in the face of inevitable death. That is, after all, an unavoidable condition written into the part each of us plays.

I felt the most bemused wonder watching the noble characters who had been center-stage one night, chatter and fade aimlessly into the background the next, as I hung on every word uttered by Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who we now understand to have been this active and present, though unobserved, all throughout Shakespeare’s tragedy, as well. “Every exit is an entrance somewhere else,” Stoppard’s play informs us.

The title characters are played by John McPhee and Michael Yashinsky, and I’m afraid I might be accused of hyperbole in describing their performances as completely absorbing, delightfully entertaining, intensely illuminating, masterfully slapstick, impressively lively, and poetically captivating. Too much? Too bad. I liked them.

They stick with each other and amuse one another. Regardless of the small value attached to their lives by people in power, they are committed to reflecting on the meaning of their actions in this bizarro world of plotless chaos and random incident. They are trying to get woke. The attention they pay to those immediately around them even while struggling to make sense of what’s happening on the grand stage is itself transformative.

“Be happy,” one of them tells the other, “If you’re not even happy, what’s the point of surviving?”

Thank you. I heard that.

See William Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” June 30, July 2, 13, 15, 21, 23 and August 3 and 5 at 7 p.m. See Tom Stoppard’s “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead” on June 29, July 1, 14, 16, 20, 22 and August 4 and 6 at 7 p.m. at the Massachusetts Renaissance Center. For tickets and directions, visit: https://hampshireshakespeare.com.

Jenny Terpsichore Abeles is a Greenfield-based writer and educator. She welcomes your feedback at jennifer.abeles@gmail.com