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.

In addition, both productions had sound underneath the action and speaking, which naturally muddied the sound. The Macbeth sound design (by Tony Thompson), however, was interesting and only minimally obtrusive. Mark Landis' sound design for A Midsummer Night's Dream, on the other hand, was generic, rather dull "Caribbean," and loud.

Although Macbeth's director, Doug Finlayson, messed around with the text a bit, I appreciated the reprise of Macbeth's "Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow" soliloquy with which Finlayson ended the play, because it was rather garbled and unclear the first time around. Suzanne Celentano, on the other hand, went in for some major revisions of MND. She set the play on "an enchanted, remote island, somewhere in the Caribbean" (thus the music and lots of faux-dancing); Theseus, the play's moral center, stopped being Duke of Athens and became "President of Sun Inc." His bride, Hippolyta, no longer an Amazon, became "President of Amazon.com." Cute? You bet! Sensible? No, because one of the two major plotlines depends on Theseus, the moral and authoritative center of the play, making a bad decision. And why should the president of Sun Inc. be interfering in the family matters of one of his employees and her daughter, especially when the director has gone to the trouble of setting the play in the present? Present-day mothers do not tell daughters whom to marry, and mothers' bosses do not threaten the daughters with perpetual chastity or death if they don't obey their mothers. And if said president should be judging, shouldn't he also be listening to the arguments of the parties before him rather than nattering with his bride? Not by Celentano's lights he shouldn't. Theseus doesn't listen at the end of the play, either, when the young lovers try to explain, at his request, what happened to them on the previous night. Instead he natters with Hippolyta. Stupid, just plain stupid.

Celentano also decided to cast the play nontraditionally, which is cool. Why shouldn't Puck be played by a woman? On the other hand, why change the sex of the child over whom Oberon and Titaniacontinued on page 72continued from page 70quarrel, and why identify her in the program as "Oberon's natural daughter"? Why should tumbling studmuffins attend Titania, "queen of the spirits" (not queen of the fairies in this production)? Likewise, why should willowy groupies attend Oberon, likewise de-fairied? Not terribly regal. Is Celentano striking a blow for feminism? Is "fairies" politically incorrect? Or has she merely indulged in some notions that just don't make much sense? I'm putting my money on the last explanation.

The worst of it is, what the director should have been doing is preparing student actors to act the play successfully so that the community can experience one of the great plays of our language. Celentano, more interested in her notions, neglected her actor/students and shortchanged the community.

Finlayson went after a more traditional Macbeth and got it. His concept of the play involved a great deal of imaginative motion skillfully accomplished -- although the play became, surprisingly, rather static as its climax approached. But the stuff he set up for the witches, battle scenes, the banquet and the appearance of Banquo's ghost were full of life and liveliness. And although their lines often made no sense, the actors' words themselves were generally clear. Macbeth's costumes (by Chris Peters) were fascinating; its set, designed by Scott Neale, was artful and interestingly layered, and Marc Moore lit it with great skill. Celentano also had a great set and lighting, both by Jim Burwinkel, but MND's costumes, by Gregory J. Horton, were neither interesting nor becoming. The responsibility for Macbeth's mediocrity and the fiasco of A Midsummer Night's Dream lies squarely on the backs of their directors. Their deans should speak to them.

-- Harry Weber

ALICE IN WONDERLAND
Adapted from Lewis Carroll by the Alice in Wonderland cast and Robert Neblett; music by Brian Hohlfeld

Washington University Performing Arts Department
Reviewing Washington University's Alice in Wonderland feels a bit like reviewing a class' chemistry experiment. The production began as the project of a course taught by Jeffery Matthews, the director, and the program book comes complete with a half-dozen student essays. Nevertheless, the Performing Arts Department presented the result as part of their season. So here are a few comments.

Robert Neblett, who took the lead in adapting Lewis Carroll's books and who played both Alice's father and the White Knight with his usual skill, noted in his essay that a major difficulty in staging the Alice books is Alice's passivity -- not a good thing in a play's protagonist. The class partly solved this problem by framing the piece as Alice's dream, thereby giving her a more active role in what happens. Unfortunately, they ended the framing story with a sentimentality foreign to Carroll's phantasmagoria. And they didn't come up with a clear dramatic line to drive events forward and pull them together.

As a result, Alice broke down into a series of episodes, most of them built around Brian Hohlfeld's musical numbers. These featured Carroll's creations -- the Caterpillar as a gospel preacher, the Mad Hatter and March Hare as a vaudeville team, the Walrus and the Carpenter and their oysters as participants in a Busby Berkeley extravaganza, the Mock Turtle as a blues singer. The success of these numbers varied with the skill of the performers, with Jonathan Reitzes especially strong as the Caterpillar and Emily Levy as the Mock Turtle. Todd Palmer's video work highlighted the delightful Cheshire Cat of Tijuana Ricks. Brooke Kleinman's Alice charmed throughout. But the whole was less than the parts.

-- Bob Wilcox

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