The Immortals can rest easy. Richard Burbage, David Garrick, Edmund Kean, Sir Henry Irving, the divine Sarah Bernhardt, John Barrymore, Sir John Gielgud, Lord Laurence Olivier, Christopher Plummer, Sir Richard Burton, Peter O'Toole, Nicol Williamson, Jonathan Pryce, William Hurt, Kevin Kline, Mel Gibson, Val Kilmer, Ralph Fiennes and, now, even Keanu Reeves, have no cause to lose sleep. Each has his own grip on history's greatest Dane, and there is little danger they will be overshadowed by Jerry Ferraccio, appearing in Arizona Shakespeare Festival's Hamlet.
Even Donald Madden can relax. Madden's Hamlet in New York in 1962 was widely praised at the time, but I doubt you've heard of him. It takes talent to be forgotten in spite of having been a good Hamlet, one who served the play and made the audience understand the immense suffering of this great character, as well as his humor, his charm, his intense sense of Fate, his princely station and his poetic soul. Unfortunately, Ferraccio's Hamlet is forgotten by the time you reach the parking lot.
Hamlet was Shakespeare's biggest hit, a vehicle for his biggest role. Written in 1601 for his principal actor, Richard Burbage, this Everest for actors has enticed the greatest talents throughout history to try to "pluck out the heart of my mystery," as the melancholy Dane says. I try to give my students good advice on casting: Never cast a Hamlet from a casting call. The play requires the charisma of a star.
John Gielgud's silver-throated Prince was a strong, vibrant Renaissance man, whose sensitivity paralyzed his will. In contrast, Ferraccio plays him with the sensitivity of a K mart cashier. Often, he conveys no conception of why he speaks his lines, having discovered no inner connection to Hamlet's situation that might induce the transcendent self-examination of the soliloquies, which he almost invariably mumbles.
Laurence Olivier's patrician Hamlet was strongly influenced by a contemporary theory of the psychiatrist Dr. Ernest Jones, who held that Hamlet's problem was rooted in his oedipal complex. So Olivier's Academy Award-winning performance featured a very Hollywood take: Hamlet passionately kissed his mother, Gertrude, in a sexy "closet scene." In a somber voice-over at the beginning of the film, Olivier describes Hamlet's problem in this infamous oversimplification: "This is a story about a man who couldn't make up his mind." Ferraccio exhibits no such capacity for deep thought, nor does he share any passion with anyone in the play. This renders his relationships with Ophelia, his mother, Claudius and Horatio so casual that Ferraccio is unable even to fake feeling.
My own production of Hamlet in 1979 featured William Hurt in the eponymous role. Bill's was an egalitarian Prince, who simply couldn't understand why it was he who had been chosen as the instrument of Fate, afraid of losing belief in his own free will. ("The time is out of joint: O cursed spite, That ever I was born to set it right!") To be sure, Bill muttered a bit, but his is the only Hamlet I have seen that brought the entire audience to tears at his death, as Horatio bids, "Good night sweet Prince, and flights of angels sing thee to thy rest."
By contrast, Ferraccio rushes his words when he is not mumbling, as if sheepishly trying to sweep the speeches into a dustpan of incomprehension, inaudibly tossing away this impetuous declaration to Horatio: "Give me that man that is not passion's slave, and I will wear him in my heart's core, ay in my heart of heart, as I do thee." His lack of passion mystifies.
Ferraccio's all-purpose gesture (fingers stretched out, palms parallel to the floor, emphasizing the important words) recalls Mike Myers on Saturday Night Live saying, "Talk among yourselves." He has ignored his own advice, "Suit the word to the action, the action to the word." In fact, he manages to stay unaware of any action in the play, until the sword scene more than three and a half hours into the production. The duel was easily the most proficient part of the evening, so credit must go to Bruce Laks, who was playing Laertes.
Unfortunately, the new artistic director of Arizona Shakespeare Festival, Lyrr Descy, has elected to open the group's third season with this leaden production that has no spark of life, much less tragedy. To be sure, she has inhospitable circumstances to overcome. After losing its previous home in Mesa to the spin-off Southwest Shakespeare Festival, ASF has been exiled to the cavernous Shadow Mountain High School Auditorium in north Phoenix. Seating well over a thousand, the auditorium contains a mammoth stage, so remote that echo is the prime element of acoustics. Awkwardly staged, the actors often find themselves addressing their lines upstage or into the wings, where they are swallowed up by the void. Descy has aimed to present a manic-depressive interpretation of Hamlet, but was only able to achieve the manic, which certainly depressed me.
The massive gray setting by Richard Grace offers levels, steps, a tunnel and, above, a rampart that should have served a livelier production. It is not his fault the performances are as gray as his set.
The lighting by David Bortle is the dimmest thing about the entire proceedings, obscuring in blue shadows what little life the actors have managed to discover. Perhaps the performances seemed even flatter when fully visible, but I would rather have seen that for myself.
The costumes by Tammi Hocking and the property design by Cat Dragon are distractingly bizarre, both overstating the visual evidence that something is rotten in Denmark. The intended time or place is a mystery, unexplained by the program, and the costumes and props suggest a sort of a Mad Max-influenced medley of generic "ye olde period."
As for the supporting cast, only Ken Love even comes close to a legitimate interpretation in the role of Claudius, Shakespeare's second largest part. He speaks with authority, makes sense of the verse and has moments of simulated feeling. Suzanne Lee Murray makes an appealing Ophelia, although she blows her big moment ("Oh, what a noble mind is here o'erthrown") and plays her mad scenes like a lunatic, rather than a deeply disturbed orphan who takes her own life. She has taken the lines about "painted faces" quite literally, and has slathered on the rouge.
Much worse is Sylvia Vizcaya as a tipsy Gertrude, in a red velvet gown that even Scarlett O'Hara would have left as drapes. Thomas Burns' tedious portrayal would justify an earlier death scene for Polonius. As Horatio, Al Benneian listens well, until he begins to emote in the final scene. The funniest performance of the evening (intended) is that of Mike Lawler as the philosophical gravedigger.
The most ludicrous performance (unintended) was given by Brad Erickson, whose bulging talent is stuffed into white pants as Rosencrantz. His animated gesticulation dramatizes each image of each phrase.
The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark will of course survive this deadly reading, and perhaps the players found their experience enlarged by their encounter with this ghost of greatness. I doubt many in the audience will.
Marshall W. Mason has won six Obie Awards for directing work by playwrights Lanford Wilson, Tennessee Williams and Jules Feiffer. Mason is now associate professor of theatre at Arizona State University.
Get the Arts and Theater Newsletter
Weekly information keeping you in the know when it comes to the Phoenix art and theater scene. Find out about upcoming performances, exhibitions, openings and special events.