By Josh Edelson
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In the wonderful Canadian television dramedy Slings and Arrows (the first season of which aired in the U.S. last year on the Sundance Channel), Geoffrey Tennant, a tortured and brilliant director played by Paul Gross, manages against all the odds to pull off a remarkable production of Hamlet. What makes Slings and Arrows compelling viewing isn't just watching Tennant overcome such obstacles as a conniving board member, a temperamental leading lady, and various personal demons on the way to theatrical glory. It's equally fascinating to see how the director gently coaxes his neophyte Hamlet -- a famous young movie actor cast more for his looks and box office allure than for his acting ability -- into delivering the goods.
Tickets are $10-15
Melissa Hillman, the director of Impact Theatre's production of Hamlet, may not have faced the same challenges as Tennant (I can't say this categorically because I have neither been in rehearsals nor seen inside Hillman's head). Yet Impact would make an equally good subject for a TV series. If you've been to see any of the company's shows, you'll know what I mean. The audacious ensemble performs in La Val's Subterranean Theatre, in the basement of a pizzeria in Berkeley, a space so snug that it's hard to imagine swinging the proverbial cat in it, let alone staging a full-on duel. It's also pretty noisy down there -- the most intense of the Dane's soliloquies face accompaniment from the upstairs clamor of diners and clatter of pizza chefs. Plus, Impact takes the old theater adage of doing things on a shoestring to an extreme. To call this Hamlet bare-bones is an understatement: The set design consists of a single chair and a red rear curtain; the costumes are modern, monochrome, and strictly thrift store; and it would be fair to say that some of the players involved are at the "aspiring" stage of their careers.
But while in Slings and Arrows a great director extracts a stellar performance from a not-so-stellar leading man, the reverse seems to be true in Impact's case, for Patrick Alparone is a young actor of tantalizing range and promise. From the moment he appears in the space, silent and aquiline as a Trappist monk in his black hoodie, one senses the weight this prince bears on his shoulders as well as his mocking intelligence. When Alparone says, "Oh, that this too, too solid flesh would melt," you believe that his own flesh might "thaw and resolve itself into a dew" at any moment. When he blathers on about hawks and handsaws to Polonius, you instantly know his raving is all a joke at the expense of the blustering old man. Despite the intensity of the performance, Alparone brings a sardonic sense of humor and a lithe physicality to the role. The climactic duel, in which Hamlet and Laertes fight, is as precisely choreographed as it is violent. The night I attended, people sitting in the front row shrank back in fear.
Yet as I sat there watching Alparone do his stuff, I couldn't help wondering how much more deep and dangerous his performance -- and, indeed, the entire production -- might have been if the direction were better focused. I admire Hillman's chutzpah: Staging the world's most famous play in the basement of a pizzeria is nothing if not bold. Her actors (even the most aspiring of them) perform with passion, she knows how to make a virtue out of the cramped surroundings, and her transitions between scenes are consistently slick.
However, the production is hampered by the lack of a coherent vision. Hillman's interest in contemporizing the political aspects of Hamlet -- through the use of guns, intermittent indie rock music, and reimagining the night-watchmen characters Marcellus and Bernardo as bodyguards in dark suits and earpieces -- doesn't quite coalesce with her fascination for the work's metatheatrical undercurrent. Hamlet's emphasis on the idea of playing a part (both Alparone's Hamlet and Cole Smith's Claudius are excellent at this) is undermined by the hammy thespian warm-up antics prior to the play-within-a-play scene as well as the rambling inclusion of a particular monologue (the First Player's speech about the slaughter of King Priam) that, because it requires expert handling, is often best cut. As a result, the acting frequently flounders, swinging erratically between maniacal melodrama and dull, Method-esque understatement. Even Alparone -- notwithstanding his considerable natural abilities -- could use a little more directorial focus.
Revealingly, the scenes in which Hillman's duties are divided suffer most. Hillman not only directs the play but also acts in it, playing Gertrude, Hamlet's mother. Hamlet and Gertrude's exchange in the queen's dressing room might be the most uneven scene in the entire production. Hamlet's stabbing of Polonius as the old man eavesdrops on the mother-son conversation comes across as mistimed and deliberate. Neither Alparone nor Hillman quite knows what's at stake here. As a result, the moment dissolves into farce. The scene in which Rosencrantz and Guildenstern first learn of their commission from the king and queen feels similarly forced. In previous scenes, Claudius and Gertrude hint at the physical nature of their relationship, but watching them grope each other, with Hillman's scarlet-bra-encased boobs on display, is too much. Like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, we're supposed to feel embarrassed and uncomfortable, yet the action comes across as tasteless and contrived. If only Hillman would stick to directing. Or find another director, if she must act.
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