Thursday, February 13, 2014

Bay Colony Shakespeare Company Opens Their Second Season with "Hamlet"

The Bay Colony Shakespeare Company kicked off its second season of existence with an ambitious mounting of "Hamlet."  The performance that I attended was presented at the beautifully restored Chevalier Theater in Medford Square.  Subsequent performances will be held in Cotuit, Newton and Quincy (see below for details) .

Given the enormous challenges involved in producing a credible production of Hamlet, I applaud Artistic Director Neil McGarry and Director Ross MacDonald for their ambitious reach in only the second season of this acting troupe.  While my overall experience was positive in viewing this "Hamlet," it is clear that there still remain some areas of stretching and growing for the company and some of its cast members.

The cast members are:

James Bocock - Polonius, et al.
Cameron Beaty Gosselin - Laertes, Rosencrantz
Tom Grenon - Cladius, Ghost
Elizabeth Hartford - Ophelia
Alexander Joseph - Bernardo, Guildenstern, et al.
Ross Magnant -Hamlet
Erica Simpson - Horatio, et al.
Meredith Stypinski - Gertrude

Let me highlight a few of the positives.

  • The costuming by Deirdre McCabe Gerrand was excellent, and created the atmosphere one would expect for a period piece of this nature.
  • Tom Grenon as Claudius and the ghost of Hamlet's father is flawless in his portrayal of these two roles.  He plays Shakespeare as a good American actor should play Shakespeare.  He speaks the archaic language in the tones and rhythms of everyday speech, and the audience attunes itself to those rhythms and makes sense of what is being said.
  • Elizabeth Hartford plays a very effective and heart-breaking Ophelia.  Her mad scene is a highlight of this production.
  • Erica Simpson as Horatio is a steady presence on the stage, standing by Hamlet through thick and thin  and cradling his body in his death scene.  She is very credible in the role.
  • Cameron Beaty Gosselin plays both Laertes and Rosncrantz with a nuanced touch - covering the emotional ground from comedy to rage with great facility and passion.
  • Ross Magnant is a young and impassioned Hamlet.  It took me a few scenes to  warm up to Mr. Magnant's portrayal of the troubled Dane.  His facial expressions in the opening scenes reminded me of a petulant and spoiled child.  But I saw the child grow into man as he wrestled with his multiple existential dilemmas.  With one exception, which I will address below, his performance is a strong one and promises Boston area audiences many more strong performances in the future.
  • I loved the subtle atmospheric sounds that spilled out from behind stage whenever the ghost would appear. It is a nice touch.
Let me address my major criticism of this production, which is the pacing of the show and of some of the actor's speeches.  This production has played in schools, so cuts have been made to reduce the run time to two hours.  This is a necessary compromise to keep school audiences engaged.  It also seems that in the interest of keeping things moving at a brisk pace, the actors have been instructed not to linger over the familiar phrases - of which there are scores in this hallowed work of art.  I am very much in sympathy with the concept of not allowing actors to massage the iconic language as if it were a cow being prepared as Kobe beef.  But in this case, several cast members have simply swung too far in the opposite direction.

To highlight my point, allow me to borrow from some inadvertent eavesdropping I did during intermission.  I decided to stay in my seat to think about the play as I had experienced it up to that point. A couple sitting behind me began sharing with each other their preliminary impressions.  The gist of their conversations could be summarized as follows: "I wish the actors were not rushing through their speeches.  I cannot understand half of the words.  And when they turn to address someone upstage, I lose the meaning of their words altogether."

This is a serious issue with this production.  I know the text of Hamlet inside and out, and I was having trouble following some of the dialogue and speeches.  Some of them were spoken so quickly that it felt like the legalese inserted in the last ten seconds of a radio commercial - not meant to be understood, but placed there to satisfy the lawyers.  This phenomenon happened twice during Hamlet's most iconic soliloquy.  But it was endemic to many of the actors.  The director and his cast should have heeded the words of instruction that Hamlet offers to the players about to perform the play-within-the-play to catch Claudius in his guilt: "O, it offends me to the soul to hear a robustious, periwig-pated fellow tear a passion to tatters, to very rags, to split the ears of the groundlings. . ."

This problem did not prevent this groundling from enjoying the play and applauding the terrific work of many of those involved.  But it did prevent me from walking away with a total sense of delight.  "Tis a consummation devoutly to be wished."

I look forward to following the arc of this young theater company as it continues to take bold chances with repertoire and to grow in  its mastery of these works of art.

See below for opportunities to see this production south and west of Boston.

Hamlet, coming to the Cotuit Center For The Arts (Feb. 21 & 22), Priscilla Beach Theatre (Feb. 28, March 1 & 2), Newton Presbyterian Church (March 4) and First Presbyterian Church, Quincy (March TBA).

Bay Colony Shakespeare Website

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