Stuff so Flat and Dull: ‘Hamlet’ at ACT

Hamlet at ACT (2017) - banner

“It is here, Hamlet. Hamlet, thou art slain.
No medicine in the world can do thee good.”

– Act V, Sc. 2

This is what people think when they say “I hate Shakespeare”.

That’s the thought that kept running through my mind as this show went on. No, not me hating Shakespeare – quite the contrary, I love Shakespeare. I’m currently acting in a show by Shakespeare. During one of my off days for that show, I went to go see a damn-good production of Shakespeare that’s still running, as of this writing. No, what I thought was that this show was the sort of thing that goes through the mind of everyone I’ve ever met who can’t understand my affinity for this one collection of 400-year-old plays and poems. This is the sort of production where the words don’t stick; they just go in one ear and out the other.

It was this past March when Carey Perloff announced that after 25 years she’ll no longer be artistic director of the ACT. If you have any interest or connection to Bay Area theatre, you likely had a reaction to that announcement. True, her tenure brought about several world premieres, revivals, and cemented the ACT’s place as THE big theatre of San Francisco (if not the West Coast). But it also brought a considerable amount of criticism: Perloff has often been accused of favoring LA and New York talent, despite trumpeting herself as a champion of local performers. She’s also been accused of “playing it safe” by selecting none-too-challenging shows that wouldn’t feel out of place on the line-up of SHN.

And then there’s her directing. No matter what one feels about her administrative choices, directing has often been her Achilles’ heel – shows that got such rave reviews in other cities would suddenly be excoriated by critics once they hit SF to be directed by Perloff. Are those opinions subjective? Yes, all art is. But as a long and storied career comes to a close, this chapter isn’t going to raise anyone’s opinion of her choices. Quite the contrary: this show will leave all of her critics thinking they were right all along.

I’ll forego my usual plot recap; this is Hamlet – how could you not know it? If nothing else, you probably know it as the basis for that beloved piece of children’s entertainment with its memorable characters and lasting iconography. I’m referring of course to the tv show Sons of Anarchy. Seriously, even if you’ve somehow never read or seen Hamlet, you could easily assemble the entire plot by what you’ve picked up through cultural osmosis.

This particular production is getting a lot of press for its casting of renowned stage actor John Douglas Thompson in the title role. I don’t know much of Thompson’s work, but I know that casting a man in his 50s to play a character between 19 and 22 is a textbook example of miscasting. When Claudius famously addresses him as “Young Hamlet,” it’s hard to believe he’s speaking to the man with the aged face and bowlegged walk we see before us. Casting him against an Ophelia in her early-20s (Rivka Borek) not only exacerbates the issue, but also brings up the outmoded “old man/young woman” trope. We’re never able to suspend our disbelief.

But what of his acting? Well, dear reader, it is here that Perloff’s shortcomings become most apparent. People often ask me “How can you tell what a director did?” To which I respond, “Look at everything consistent.” I know only two actors in this cast, so I have no point of reference for the others. But having seen Perloff-directed shows, I can say that almost everyone’s off-note performances are likely her doing. She directs her cast to get out the famous lines on beat, but not with much meaning. Classic monologues fall flat and lifeless. Stirring emotional moments like Ophelia’s madness or Laertes learning of her suicide come off like a petulant child having a tantrum and a diner being told there are no more napkins, respectively. Many times, characters are just standing around with nothing to do.

One moment of mild amusement can be found during Hamlet’s speech to the players, when he tells them not to “cut the air with [their] hands”. The scene itself feels pretty dead, but that line proves paradoxical when seeing Laertes actor Teagle Bougere constantly do just that. The worst is when Hamlet is about to kill Claudius as the latter prays: Hamlet remains hidden in this scene, but this version has him standing so close to Claudius that he’s breathing in his ear. It’s the entire production in a nutshell: it isn’t dramatic, it’s ridiculous.


It does, however, give me the opportunity to mention the one actor who manages to pull off a decent – nay, great – performance: Steven Anthony Jones as Claudius. The veteran actor – himself the outgoing artistic director for the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre – injects every line as Claudius and Hamlet’s Father with the gravitas, clarity, and humanity the lines need. Had the rest of the show played to his standard, it would have injected some much-needed life into the interminable three-plus-hour runtime. Although reliable local actors Anthony Fusco and Jomar Tagatac also put in decent turns as Horatio and Fortinbras, respectively, Jones seems to have stepped out of a much better production and somehow found his way into this one.

With a start time of 8pm, it was 9:30 by the time we got to the intermission. Nearly all of the text is left intact (save for a few noticeable omissions, like “niggard of question”). Yet the final scene tries to fly by at the speed of a bullet train, as if it could make up for the previous three hours we audience just lost from our lives.

Using this show as my only example, I can’t speak to the talents of John Douglas Thompson or many of his fellow castmates. I can, however speak to the career of Carey Perloff. No one will dispute that she’s had an impact on the Bay Area theatre scene, but we will continue to debate whether it was for better or for worse. What’s not up for debate is the fact that her strongest skills were never on the stage. I don’t know if this is her final directorial effort before packing her bags, but if so, she leaves the ACT not with a bang, but with a snore.

GRADE:                D

Hamlet is scheduled to run until the 15th of October at The Geary Theater in San Francisco.
The show runs roughly 3 hours and 10 minutes with a single 15-min. intermission.
For tickets and information, please visit the production’s official site here.

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