Hamlet, at Forest Theater, June 29, 2013

To be or not to be

Photo courtesy Rebecca Barrymore

Photo courtesy Rebecca Barrymore

By Philip Pearce

The Forest Theater Guild is staging Hamlet starring John Barrymore III at the Indoor Forest Theater until July 25th and I think it’s a mistake.

Any production of this best-known play in the English language is bound to be a risk. But it’s more like cruel and unnecessary punishment to load thirty Elizabethan speaking parts onto a cast many of whom have little or no acting experience and expect them to work their way through a brutally long script. Not surprisingly, too much of the action, at least at Friday’s opening night, came across as under-rehearsed, misunderstood, misinterpreted or inaudible.

The lead male actors were all three of them credited with directing, so it’s impossible to know who deserves praise or blame for any of the staging, too much of which simply stuck characters together in an unmoving clump while they went through their parts and then shuffled them back into the wings. Where there was some variety of movement, as in the opening sequence on the Elsinore battlements, people made puzzling choices. Why, I wondered, does John David Whalen as Horatio choose to play some of that scene stretched languorously on his back staring up into the Carmel sky?

It was an opening night struggle even for the more seasoned and professional company members. Larry Welch was appropriately bombastic as Polonius, but so seldom met with any real emotional response from the people he was talking to that he became a sort of solitary voice orating in the wilderness. Cristiana DiPietro seemed to have some idea of what emotions Ophelia was feeling at various times but she stumbled as she tried to fit Elizabethan dialogue into a Valley Girl voice and intonation.

Two overriding puzzles kept churning around in my brain as I watched. The first concerned John Barrymore III. Grandson of the most famous Hamlet of the 20th century, he seemed tentative and uneasy in the role. Facing the Ghost he showed little more than polite surprise at the news that his beloved father had been murdered by his much hated uncle. To make up for this, perhaps, he then threw an extra big shouting tantrum at “Unhand me, gentlemen—”. Significant lines liked “O cursed spite that ever I was born to put it right” or “The play‘s the thing wherein I‘ll catch the conscience of the king,” and “now could I drink hot blood” were all delivered as murmured afterthoughts. Barrymore seemed sort of embarrassed by all the well-worn words and familiar feelings some 16th century playwright had saddled him with and so he offered them to the audience almost like apologies. There were brief moments of passion and insight, but overall it was one of the most confusing and incomplete star performances I can remember seeing.

My other puzzle was Nick Hovick, who gave a clearly spoken, assured and convincing performance as Claudius. His prayer scene was so strong and moving and well staged that even the often bemused Hamlet caught some of the momentum and was at his best. But Claudius didn’t fit in. It was as if he had wandered in from some other production bringing with him this spot-on scene, which the audience recognized as authentic and rewarded with a round of applause.

In honesty and for the record, I left early and am open to correction about anything that happened after Polonius got stabbed behind the arras. And the last thing I want to do is discourage community theater on the Monterey Peninsula.

But more than half the opening night audience went home in the first intermission, nearly an hour before I did. And whatever I write here, I’m afraid word is going to get around anyway.

Forest Theater Guild’s Hamlet is schedule to run to July 25, Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm and Saturdays and Sundays at 2pm. www.foresttheaterguild.org