Nashville Shakespeare Festival
Through Feb. 2 at Belmont’s Troutt Theater
For its debut as a company in residence at Belmont University, Nashville Shakespeare Festival presents a take on Hamlet that’s ambitious and often interesting, though not fully satisfying.
Much of Denice Hicks’ proactive direction is imaginative, finding new, oblique angles in the material, even as it plays out on the Troutt Theater’s fairly conventional stage. Heavy fog envelops the proceedings, a platform carrying Hamlet’s father’s ghost rolls freely about the stage, a pyramid-like staircase is pressed into versatile service to represent key settings around the castle at Elsinore. The show is movement-conscious and libertarian in spirit, which might be sound philosophy in service of a classic play about a man caught in the throes of how to exercise his free will when presented with dastardly personal circumstances—discovering that his uncle has killed his father and then married his mother.
We get a teaser for “To be or not to be” at play’s open, as the melancholy Dane, played by Peter Vann, stands upstage-right and previews the famous soliloquy long before we get it in all its glory in the expected course of events. Credit director Hicks with trying to present a familiar stage classic in what might be deemed cinematic style. Scenes are played left and right, upstage and downstage—on Paul Gatrell’s open, flexible set—with the happy middle ground used effectively for the lighter setup scenes as well as the critical play-within-a-play sequence and the big climactic duel.
Vann, as the active everyman intent on seeking truth and pondering how to “take arms against a sea of troubles,” is all over the place, and that’s just fine. He moves well, and he’s an experienced young actor who appears uncowed by the formidable role. If only his sharp tenor, which crackles with intensity much of the time, could guide us more subtly and intimately into his character’s dark psyche. The production suffers a stretch of ennui midway through Act 2, and whatever staging quirks bear the responsibility, there is also the problem of Vann’s usually strident communication. For effort alone, he’s to be admired. It’s a sincere reading, though it lacks emotional nuance.
Claudius, played by Jessejames Locorriere (who also doubles, in dark glasses, as the striking figure of Hamlet’s father), and Gertrude, played by Helen Shute-Pettaway, are well cast, yet their performances seem distant, possibly a byproduct of the unconventional direction. Locorriere’s malevolence never really crystallizes, and Shute-Pettaway conveys her royal formality but little of her conflicting impulses as both queen and mother.
Faring better is Brian Webb Russell as Polonius—a role he was born to play. He offers his easy counsel and eventually dies a jarringly dramatic death. Even so, his famous words of advice to his children—“Neither a borrower nor a lender be,” etc.—could benefit from even broader pomposity and comical grandeur. Eric Pasto-Crosby as Laertes seems comfortable throughout, and, along with Vann, he entertains us with a sword fight that is competently, though not thrillingly, staged. Furthermore, Pasto-Crosby’s early scene with sister Ophelia (Ayla Harrison) has excellent energy and warmth. Harrison, thin and fragile, offers a performance that is quietly agreeable most of the time, though her supposed madness comes off as almost an afterthought. David Wilkerson’s Horatio is balanced and efficient, if fairly colorless.
Eight supporting roles are handled by four younger actors—Stephen Boatright, Zack McCann, Benjamin Reed and Shanti Smith—three of whom are Belmont students taking advantage of NSF’s residency status at the school. They all deliver clear recitations and nicely perform the very important charade through which Hamlet declares his knowledge of his father’s fate to the nefarious Claudius.
One major misstep here is the incidental music, credited to Jeremy Mazza. It often disrupts the dialogue, especially in the early scenes. Mazza’s underscoring is a hodgepodge of indecipherable style, and even if it were used more sparingly, it’s doubtful the compositions would better suit the action.
Franne Lee’s costumes have an alternative flair—they appear to be a modern, expressionistic interpretation of classical dress. They are distinctive to be sure—especially Gertrude’s white fur hat and wrap—but the more tradition-bound observer might simply find them offbeat or even alien. That said, the outfits seem apropos for the show’s nontraditional bent.
Even with its experimental staging and editing, this Hamlet gives us all the Bard’s key phrases and a strong sense of his compelling story. Yet the pace is inconsistent, and the dead patch in Act 2 is an unfortunate challenge to the audience’s attention span. Fortunately, the swordplay gets us back on track before it’s too late.
Thank you for the write up. We greatly appreciate it! Hope we raise the funds…
Looks like he was a great Artist.......who left his Legacy behind for others to follow.....
Indianapolis (CA-35), not Indiana.
There were plenty of jumps and screams at the severed-head reveal at the Sunday night…
I just...this recap...why did I not know these were here until now?! 4 times on…