Spring Break

HAMLET
By William Shakespeare
SIU-Edwardsville University Theatre

Here's the story: A young man comes home from college to discover that his father has died, his uncle has married his mother and grabbed his inheritance, and his girlfriend is rejecting him. Sound like another Hollywood package aimed at the hot youth demographic? Not this time, though the piece was written by one of movieland's current faves, Will Shakespeare.

In the recent production of Hamlet at Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville, the young prince was played by a college student who acted like a college student. Rachel Tiemann talked with her shoulders a lot, tended to moodiness and sprawl, liked to deal with the world from a prone position and often had her head buried in a book -- the Renaissance equivalent of a Walkman.

Yes, Rachel Tiemann. This was the production in which director W. Craven Mackie cast a woman as Hamlet. Tiemann has a slender, androgynous build; she kept her voice in its lower range; and she played with an intensity that bordered on fierceness. I quickly had no problem accepting her as the young prince. Her performance was carefully and intelligently prepared, study that nurtured a lively, not studied, performance. I would have liked more attention to transitions and more range in the character's emotions. Hamlet is angry, with good reason, and Tiemann gave us plenty of anger. But I also see more humor, wit and irony in this very bright young man than she gave us. I see more of those in Shakespeare in general than I get from most young actors. I'd hoped that the young Shakespeare the movies recently showed us might help performers understand that words to him were a joy and a plaything, not a burden, and that he wrote his plays for passion and fun as well as money. But maybe the barriers of time, language and custom loom too forbiddingly to allow these performers to cross over with ease into Shakespeare's world.

Yet if not completely at home, these students rarely looked uncomfortable in that world. Thoroughly prepared by director Mackie, they almost always spoke as if their lines really meant something and they knew what it was. Like Tiemann, Caroline Renner's Ophelia uttered words that have worn into deadly familiar cliches, but her conviction made them sound as if they were torn for the first time from a suffering soul. Mark Motley's Polonius was a conventional old man, amusing but never ridiculous. Randall Middleton's Claudius cut an imposing public figure, though he was less convincing in his private moments. Jeff Ackermann gave Laertes a fiery energy, and he and Tiemann used Kim Bozark's fight choreography to make their fatal duel both clear and exciting. In David Prosser's Horatio, Hamlet had a warm and winning friend.

The darkly brooding set of C. Otis Sweezey, with its stark wooden posts and elevated catwalk, afforded Mackie flexibility for his staging, which he used with admirable clarity and focus. The production moved crisply both between and within scenes, helped by James Dorethy's fluid lighting and sound designs. In the costumes, Y. Michelle Collyar cleverly balanced subdued colors and rich fabrics to mark the leading players.

With judicious cutting, Mackie held the playing time to three hours. But his transpositions of a few lines both at the beginning and the end only reinforced for me the wisdom of Shakespeare's original construction.

-- Bob Wilcox

MACBETH
By William Shakespeare
Conservatory of Theatre Arts at Webster University
By William Shakespeare
St. Louis University Theatre

The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis' The Taming of the Shrew was hardly the end of Shakespeare for 1999. Last weekend, in addition to the Webster University Conservatory production of Macbeth and St. Louis University's A Midsummer Night's Dream, SIU-Edwardsville mounted a Hamlet and Fontbonne College staged A Winter's Tale. Opera Theatre of St. Louis will stage Verdi's setting of Othello in a month or so, and then it will be time for the St. Louis Shakespeare Company to present their offerings for the summer. Then the Rep will present Much Ado About Nothing in the fall.

The Webster Conservatory can usually be relied upon to give its audience well-produced, well directed and well-acted theater -- and why not, given that the institution's purpose is to train professional people of the theater? St. Louis University is quite capable of presenting excellent theater, too; furthermore, though Conservatory graduates tend to leave St. Louis, lots of St. Louis University-trained actors, directors and so on stay here and supply the community with some of its best people, both professional and nonprofessional. It is no pleasure, therefore, to report that neither Macbeth nor A Midsummer Night's Dream was a particularly satisfying theatrical experience. Neither cast (in general) spoke their lines clearly. In fact, I am convinced that most of the actors did not really understand what they were saying, for they did not speak in sentences. Shakespeare, however, wrote in sentences. Neither production established and maintained a satisfactory tempo. A production of A Midsummer Night's Dream should not take more than two hours, and Macbeth needs only a half-hour more. Both productions took three hours, and in toting up the hours of the SLU production, I have not taken into account the fact that Friday evening's performance began a full half-hour late. Its intermission involved serving cake to celebrate the theater's 25th anniversary, which also added time. The main reason both productions were so slow, however, was that most of the actors delivered their lines too slowly, and at SLU, there seemed to be general trouble with saying lines and doing something at the same time.

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