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Less Spooky, more Kabuki 

Queen City Shakespeare Festival elates and disappoints

Until last Thursday evening, I had never met or spoken with the ghost of Hamlet. But there he was at intermission, big as life, emerging from the dark backstage sanctum at Theatre Charlotte into the light of the lobby. There could be no question of mistaken identity: this was John Hartness, whom I'd just seen amid a modicum of mist on the battlements of Elsinore, steeling the Prince of Denmark to bloody vengeance.

Yet before invading Queen Gertrude's bedchamber, Hartness had stripped off her deceased husband's ghostly costume, striding off toward the parking lot. The King was leaving the building! Before midnight.

Feeling a little like the Prince, I confounded the laws of nature by initiating a critic-actor dialogue in the middle of a performance. Mine eyes had not deceived me. The ghost's entry at the climax of Act III, Scene 4 had been cut, Hartness told me -- with unimpeachable authority, since he himself directed the Shakespeare Carolina production.

In a nutshell, that's what alternately elated and disappointed me about the first Queen City Shakespeare Festival. You'd never see an outcome like this if you asked the public which scenes or characters they'd like to see cut from Hamlet. If these decisions had been rendered according to the dictates of ESPN's Who's Now or Fox's American Idol, the spooky ghost would likely outlive Ophelia.

Yes, there were questionable decisions at the Queens Road barn this summer. But they were intensely personal decisions, an effort to refresh and reshape the Bard for a new generation -- ousting the lazy, ordinary, knee-jerk choices that would have marked Shakespeare Carolina presentations as loudly declaiming redundancies.

The Hartness edition of Hamlet was surely more radical in this regard than last month's Taming of the Shrew directed by Chris O'Neill. Voltemond, Cornelius, Francisco and Reynaldo were among the bit players who were scrapped. Even the mighty Fortinbras, Prince of Norway, never suited up.

So the familiar bookends of the tragedy were both discarded. Fortinbras yielded the last word on the bloodshed of the final scene to Horatio, while the opening scene -- freighted with the mute ghost of King Hamlet before the Prince hears of him -- was jettisoned altogether. Other bold strokes included casting women in the roles of Osric, Bernardo and Polonius.

Beyond those alterations, something was Kabuki in this modern-dress Denmark. Led by O'Neill, the traveling troupe of actors who present the pivotal play-within-a-play that so famously upsets King Claudius arrived fully painted and costumed at Elsinore. The Asian invaders were the lone extravagance in Suzy Hartness' otherwise austere costume designs.

While I wouldn't have usurped the spooky bits of Hamlet to insert this Kabuki, the ritualized Death of Gonzago, punctuated with ceremonial drumming by Kaddie Sharpe, was certainly the most successful of the original touches. But the Shakespeare Carolina grab-bag of surprises included as many blunders as brilliancies.

Aside from the Kabuki segment, O'Neill's diffident ventures into sound design could be easily mistaken for cell phones going off in the middle of the performance, underpowered and unwelcome. Dressing royals and courtiers in blue jeans transported us to a non-existent era instead of a different one. While Osric and Bernardo traded in their customary gender without undo strain, watching Iesha Hoffman portray Polonius -- and shuttling between genders -- could be a mood-breaker. Hoffman was at her best when broadly lampooning the Lord Chamberlain's sententiousness. Truly fatherly moments were more problematical.

Many of the key performances had similar ups and downs, beginning with Nick Asa as the brooding Dane. The introspective segments could be deadly, every soliloquy a minefield, but Asa was compelling in the more spontaneous encounters with Claudius, Laertes, and Ophelia. Hartness gave this Hamlet free rein to push the brutality of the "Get thee to a nunnery" scene to its utmost limit, and Asa made the breakup with the fair Ophelia absolutely chilling.

A similar dichotomy was evident in Karen Surprise's Ophelia. Paired with other performers, there was usually a naturalness to her actions, but left on her own -- as in her valedictory mad scene -- she faltered. Jimmy Cartee was even more erratic as Laertes, out-of-touch with the vengeful son and the heartbroken brother, yet superbly supple in the final dueling encounter. I wish I could be similarly ambivalent about Suzy Hartness as the queen, but I never detected a trace of an attitude toward either Claudius or Hamlet. This Gertrude was little more than words, liberally laced with starch.

I'm not sure how John Hartness coaxed such a credible performance from Brian Willard as King Claudius. I've never been impressed by Willard before, but there were nuances to this beastly, almost contrite murderer. I suspect the secret lay in giving Willard a goblet to hold onto, mysteriously grounding him and guarding him from excess. The device did grow wearisome eventually. Perpetually half-filled, that goblet never left his hands no matter what the situation -- and never touched his lips.

There was a kind of dorky tweedle-dee, tweedle-dum kinship between Jon Johnson's Rosencrantz and Nick Iammatteo's Guildenstern that I really enjoyed, and the duo's reincarnation in the graveyard scene -- with Iammatteo brandishing the skull of Yorick -- was even more delicious. In a rare non-dorky outing, Jonathan Ewart was a sincere, stabilizing Horatio, a trusty confidant for Hamlet albeit devoid of gallantry.

Aside from O'Neill, the Kabuki standouts were Darren Moorehead and Emily Zong in their brief stints as King and Queen. The aforementioned Cartee draws the kudos for his Kabuki direction, and Charles Holmes distinguished himself with his fight choreography.

Though he didn't appear in the opening scene, Hartness did make the company's curtain speech in his role as producing artistic director. Amid his perfunctory turn-off-your-damn-cell-phones patter, Hartness did promise a second Queen City Shakespeare Festival next year. He and managing artistic director O'Neill certainly have a promising ensemble capable of delivering the goods. Hopefully, Shakespeare Carolina's artistic polish will come closer to matching their admirable fearlessness by the time summer 2008 rolls around.

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