Most previous incarnations of Shakespeare I've witnessed have featured college actors. I gotta say, it does make a difference when the actors actually know what the words mean and have skills in vocal delivery. I didn’t experience that usual first third of amateur productions struggling to try to slip into the Shakespearian language and begin to understand what was going on. I got it right away. Of course, that has to have been affected by my recent work with Rue for Ophelia which required a corporalized understanding of the text, but I’m content to conclude that better actors does equate to better experience.
After we walked kitty-corner to the Dailes teātris (The walk light on some of the busier streets goes in both directions at the same time so diagonal crossings are allowed), we explored a bit, discovering a fairly full sized restaurant/bar on the first floor and a more accustom-sized refreshment/wine bar up. The “balcony” lobby featured an exhibition of gorgeous wall hangings that looked like elaborated, bas-relief costume renderings for specific female characters created entirely out of fabric. There were also three garment/sculptures made from sewing together individual half inch tubes of different fabric – incredible. We entered the theater – the “balcony” is just an extension of the lower house separated by an aisle. We had seats in the middle of the second row above the aisle. While we really appreciated that the house had enough rake to prevent looking around the head of the person in front of you (perhaps taking into account all those tall Latvians) the second tier of seats had no center aisle, providing egress to a row of thirty seats only from either end. I am reminded of a Bugs Bunny cartoon where he says, “excuse me, pardon me, excuse me, pardon me” as he climbs into and out of his middle seats. The woman next to us complained about the lack of comfort of the seating though they were better than in other Latvian theaters and better than coach seats on international flights. We were a little annoyed that we had not bought tickets as soon as they were released as the "cheap seats" were not far away from ours which cost more than double in price.
The players started meandering out onto stage, putting on costume pieces, picking up violins, accordion, various percussion instruments, waving at individuals in the crowd – your basic formulaic postdramatic, “we’re just regular folks here” preshow stuff – then they played, sang and danced a sea chantey, spoke a few words in Latvian which got the crowd roaring, introduced themselves, gave the basic “turn off your cell phones” line (which at least one person neglected to do as their phone went off very loudly and for a long duration), and then started the play. The set was simple – two pieces of fabric on frames right and left with a fabric curtain strung on a wire between them with a long fabric covered frame to create the upstage wall – and quite effective for a small touring company. Musicians sat upstage making eerie music by bowing cymbals for the entrance of the ghost of Hamlet’s father – live music was featured throughout by a musician, two musician/actors, and the rest actor/musicians. Pacing was good, scenes moved right from one to the other. With a 15 minute intermission the whole show ran 3 hours (without pruning too much of the text).
During Ophelia’s first three monologues I found that I was crying – working with Julie Leir-VanSickle and Bridget Close to create Rue for Ophelia has left me pretty much a complete sucker for the character’s plight. Unfortunately, the actress rushed through the insane flower monologue as though she didn’t know how to deal with it and just wanted to get it over – I have to admit I much prefer how Julie and Bridget tackled it.
Gretchen’s discussion of Olivia’s death was a bit too competent news reporting for my taste. I was with the Hamlet actor up till the “To be, or not to be” soliloquy which he competently delivered as though it was some sort of philosophical musing without providing any indication that his character actually was considering the efficacy of suicide. Likewise, the King’s prayer scene didn’t demonstrate anything closely resembling an actual fear of God. I did especially enjoy Polonius’ early comedic scenes but felt the same actor double cast as the grave digger wasn’t honest in his portrayal – verging into caricature. All of the actors, save Gretchen and Hamlet, pulled double and triple duties and were, with the exception of Ophelia, less successful at creating fully realized individuals.
The final death and dying and dying and dying scene coupled with Fortinbras and the Norwegian army coming in really seemed a bit absurd – and while I fault the actors for not giving me any one that I really cared about, or fully believed emotionally after Pelonius and his daughter died – it also is a huge problem with the script itself. It is like Shakespeare didn’t really know what to do once Hamlet killed Pelonius so he brought in all of these deus ex machina plot twists thinking that the rubes in the audience won’t notice as long as he keeps his rhyming scheme in meter.
And, as a contemporary artist, I’m left thinking about the whole idea of performing/producing classical theatre and what that means. I found myself acting like an opera/balletomane who compares one diva’s performance to another one remembered from the past – examining the performance almost as a competitive sport rather than a ritual/theatrical event that, supposedly, is meant to provide catharsis.
At the end of the show the cast assembled while playing instruments and singing, with "Ophelia" signaling to each of the "dead" actors to get up and join for a rousing song and dance for their bow - a contrived bow that ensures large ovations I have seen at almost everything I have seen here in Riga. Too be fair, at least they opened the first act and after the intermission with songs so there was some continuity, but I have seen this little trick so many times I'm really getting annoyed with it.