Oak Park Festival Theatre

By Justin Hayford

Mounting Shakespeare in the park is like putting milk on your cereal: some things just naturally go together. In Shakespeare, as in a public garden, a sense of design always occupies the foreground. Order, clarity, and accessibility reign supreme. On a theatrical level, Shakespeare keeps everything out in the open, with highly contrived devices–from mistaken identities to plays-within-plays to artfully misplaced wedding bands–helping lead an audience in an orderly fashion through even the most densely overgrown passages. Hiding Shakespeare in a darkened theater behind a lot of black fabric, hoping to make everything “real,” seems antithetical to the playwright’s spirit. He packed so much truth onto his stage that he knew he didn’t need to bother making any of it real.

In short, Shakespeare–great theatrical gardener that he was–delighted in self-conscious artifice. How fitting that the Oak Park Festival Theatre, presenting Hamlet as its annual Shakespeare-in-the-park offering, plunked a boat-size rough-hewn stage in the middle of a meadow and erected a quartet of 20-foot bare-scaffolding lighting towers around it. The whole shebang looks so unnatural it may as well have fallen out of the sky. Wandering around to the back side of the stage you can see all the goblets, rapiers, bouquets, and pivotal costume pieces laid out. Before the show, actors mill about, chat nervously, primp, and greet their friends coming through the gate, while audience members picnic noisily, snap abundant pictures (“Say ‘anchoveeeeeeee!'”), and wave excitedly across the park at one another. Everything is out in the open–even the Porta Potties greet you with substantial piles of your fellow audience members’ shit.

Such heightened self-awareness is central to Hamlet, for its title character can never hide anything from himself. If only Hamlet could delude himself into thinking his mother’s marriage to her deceased husband’s brother isn’t that bad, or chalk up the king’s murderous ambition as politics as usual (which in Shakespeare’s universe it is), or work up just a bit of denial about the complete moral collapse of the state of Denmark, he might have a good day, wrapped in a self-induced haze of moral indeterminacy like the rest of us. But Hamlet can’t overlook anything, from the foul injustices he knows he must right to the utter meaninglessness of his efforts to do so–generously assuming he could muster the wherewithal to actually make such efforts.

Once this production starts, however, it becomes painfully obvious that all the preshow self-consciousness, so essential to the spirit of the play and to Shakespeare in general, is a fortuitous accident at best. The actors mount the stage and immediately start pretending they’re in a theater rather than on a sunlit platform in a big backyard. Eschewing the necessary pageantry of their chosen forum, they opt for intimate psychology, talking to one another–and only to one another–when not staring into space. Horatio details the appearance of the ghost of Hamlet’s father by either drilling his gaze into Hamlet’s face or addressing the treetops behind the audience. The ghost appears and delivers his big monologue to a passing cloud. Hamlet spends a good deal of his first “too too sullied flesh” monologue pleading with a goblet and a footstool.

Like 90 percent of American actors attempting Shakespeare, these cast members spend their time trying to make everything emotionally “real,” ignoring the poetry, the park, and a good deal of the play. With body mikes for all, the actors retreat into an ersatz naturalism, with lots of “humanizing” fussiness–the notable exceptions being Tony Dobrowolski as Polonius and Kurt Ehrmann as Claudius. It seems director Dale Calandra is after soap opera rather than lyric drama. Imagine a marching band trying to really get in touch with “On Wisconsin” and you’ve got some notion of this production’s curious emotional insularity.

Because Calandra won’t let his actors acknowledge the production’s artifice–or even let them look at the audience, for the most part–the slightest distraction renders the proceedings absurd. And there are a million distractions, from car stereos to screeching birds to rowdy pedestrians. Laertes and Ophelia seem odd enough decked out in period costume standing atop a fake concrete bunker in the middle of a field, debating Hamlet’s worth while pawing each other as though they’re “really” in Ophelia’s bedroom. But when a passing jet drowns them out for 20 seconds while they continue on like oblivious robots, the whole thing becomes embarrassingly silly. Outdoors, an actor must be willing to appear fully live before us–must admit who and where he is.

Those who won’t accept that challenge risk incurring fate’s ridiculing wrath, as Henry Godinez, the actor playing Hamlet, learned the hard way on opening night: a split second after his dying words–“The rest is silence”–a beat-up old car in sore need of muffler repair roared by, turned the corner, and pulled into the park.

That automotive intrusion seems an apt finale to Godinez’s incoherent, incomprehensible portrayal of Hamlet. Godinez somehow overlooks the critical fact that Hamlet is a classic melancholic–something just about everyone else in the play acknowledges, including Hamlet himself–instead playing him as a man of overflowing bile, growling, snarling, hollering, and bounding back and forth endlessly (is bile the humor that makes one rambunctious?). He never gets within ten miles of Hamlet’s paralyzing despair, the very quality that gives the character his tragic stature. Instead, Godinez turns up the bombast, ignoring Hamlet’s own admonition to a troupe of actors to “let your discretion be your tutor…for anything so o’erdone is from the purpose of playing.” All the textual evidence to the contrary, Godinez imagines Hamlet as a man who always crashes blindly forward. Maybe he thinks he’s Othello.

Understandably this production works best during the comedic sections, and not just because Dobrowolski’s long-winded Polonius and irreverent Gravedigger are delightfully and intelligently crafted. Comedy forces actors to acknowledge their relationship to the audience–they know that they must send something out to the crowd rather than keep it inside and get worked up over it. Fortunately Calandra squeezes out laughs every chance he gets.

Despite the fact that this Hamlet bears only a tangential relationship to the play Shakespeare wrote, you’d have to try hard not to enjoy yourself. You can eat, drink, smoke, talk, enjoy the summer air, watch the sky change color, and listen to some of the most exquisite writing in the English language. Then again, you could sit in the backyard with a can of beer, a club sandwich, and a good cigar and read the play aloud to yourself.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo from “Hamlet”, by Jennifer Girard.