Everybody loves Hamlet, but few more so than Stanley Spenger, who is currently staging his fourth production of the old standby with his New Shakespeare Company, which has changed its name from Subterranean Shakespeare and emerged from its fifteen years in the basement of La Val’s pizza parlor to tread the boards of the Berkeley Art Center’s gallery space on the east side of Live Oak Park. It is of course a great play, but one that is done far more often than it’s done well, and though it’s tackled here with an obvious love for the material and a surfeit of energy, it’s just tackled in an ill-conceived way.
Although Hamlet uncut would last even longer than this three-hour, 45-minute epic, when you’re watching Claudius and Laertes sitting around reminiscing about some Norman guy they met once, it’s hard to believe that anything was cut at all. Given the indulgent length of this production, many of the line readings seem to have been rushed to keep its overall length down. David Stein as Horatio is the speediest of the lot, so much so that it’s impossible to understand much of what he says. And since anyone who shares a scene with Horatio inevitably speeds up to match Stein’s pace, we gather that something is rotten in the state of Denmark, but it’s hard to make out what that something is.
This is a contemporary-dress Hamlet, and Miranda Calderon is thoroughly modern as the friskiest Ophelia ever, blowing kisses and making goo-goo eyes in her pigtails and Catholic-schoolgirl outfit. Her brother Laertes and father Polonius’ stern warnings to beware the attentions of royal cads like Hamlet seem all too justified as she fidgets coyly through their speeches as if to say, “Okay, whatever. Are we done here? Because ohmigod — boys!!!” In what proves to be one of the most gripping scenes, she even runs across the room and jumps on Hamlet’s back while he’s trying to shoo her off to a nunnery.
There’s a lot of running across the room in this production, most of it done by the melancholy Dane himself. It’s as if he needs a running start for all the yelling he does, building momentum to bellow, “Frailty, thy name is WOMAAAAAAN!!!!!” Eric Moore lingers lovingly on the language of his famous speeches, but he is overall a very physical, in-your-face Hamlet. If you knew a loud guy in college who caused a huge scene whenever he was drunk, or happy, or upset, or just bored, Hamlet is that guy. Unfortunately Moore is also a wacky Hamlet, bedeviling poor dotty Polonius (David Klausner) with zany tomfoolery, unbuttoned clothes hanging every which way, and some kind of ridiculous pirate sash on his head that he keeps on for almost the entire second act while the whole palace treats him as if he weren’t dressed and behaving like a crazy street person. Okay, the guy is a prince, and he’s pretty sure his uncle killed Hamlet Sr. to marry Queen Gertrude and become king, and that excuses a lot. But credibility can be pushed only so far, and when Hamlet throttles and tosses around his sobbing mother (Barbara Jasperson), or when fuming Laertes (John Rosenberg) holds the king at swordpoint, it’s impossible to understand why they aren’t executed on the spot.
The fight choreography, also by Moore, is very good indeed, and the acting is decent throughout — though the portrayals of madness, while not quite to the level of Daffy Duck’s early work, are still pretty over-the-top. As Claudius, Spenger seems less regal and scheming than simply exasperated with all Hamlet’s carrying-on (and really, who wouldn’t be?), and his moment of prayer and repentance is delivered with a sincere anguish that it would be nice to hear from Hamlet rather than the bad guy. It would make him far more sympathetic than does all this strutting and bellowing. When our hero’s struggle with himself is reduced to nothing but inexplicable dumb shows and noise, I would have such a fellow whipped.