Friday, July 20, 2012

Animal Fire Theater’s Hamlet in the Park

Animal Fire Theater’s “Hamlet” in Priest Point Park is exciting. Opening night was especially exciting because just as the conflict in the play began building toward the climactic fight scene, thunder began rumbling and lightning strikes could be seen in the distance —a fitting end to a dramatic outdoor performance.

Shakespeare in the park is an honored tradition with performances all over the world by troupes both amateur and professional. Patrons bring lawn chairs or quilts to spread on the grass, and they bring food and beverages.  Mosquitoes and other distractions are to be expected, accepted and overlooked—bring repellant.  Sometimes there are even animals to contend with.

Writing in the Olympian, Molly Gilmore quoted director Austen Anderson: “You have weird interactions with animals when you spend enough time out here. Birds have flown right between two actors in the middle of a scene. We had a raven that kept hopping around the set last year; we had to keep shooing it away.” Anderson was referring to incidents during rehearsal and during Animal Fire Theater’s “A Midsummer Night's Dream” last summer.

There were no animals spotted during the opening night performance, but we did have to ignore the sound of traffic going by on East Bay Drive and at least one airplane overhead.

Promotional materials describe this “Hamlet” as raw, fast and energetic. The stage area was a strip of lawn with a wooden platform, steps going up on two ends, trap doors on top and rough curtains on the sides. Roughly constructed curtains in “the wings” hid actors, props and costuming from sight. Costuming was mostly contemporary.

If anything was lost due to the roughness of the sets and lack of sophisticated sound and lighting it was more than amply compensated for by energetic and passionate acting. No dialing it in with half-hearted performances from these troupers; they give it all they’ve got.

Jay Minton in the title role of Hamlet was astounding. He was funny, he was tragic. His madness and his cleverness were palatable. And he does a terrific voice when talking to Yorick’s skull.

Emily Donkin Jones was a marvelously expressive Ophelia. She came across alternately as flirtatious, pouty, and emotionally damaged.

Kate Arvin played Horatio with intensity. One slight problem was that in the opening scene I had a hard time clearly hearing her words despite the fact that she was practically screaming. Her passionate shouting seemed to overwhelm her enunciation, but that was only in the first scene. After that she was excellent. And it didn’t seem at all out of place that she and Korja Giles as Marcellus were playing the part of men.

Christian Carvajal —to my knowledge the most experienced actor in the cast — was strong and sure in the role of Hamlet’s detested “father uncle” King Claudius.

The only other actor in this cast that I was familiar with was Morgan Picton, recently seen as Napoleon, the militant leader of the pigs, in Olympia Family Theater’s “Animal Farm.” I described him in that show as blustery and proud with a loud and commanding voice. Much the same can be said of his performance in the triple roles of King Hamlet’s Ghost, the Player King and the Gravedigger. His is a commanding presence in each of these divergent roles.

“Hamlet” is considered by many to be Shakespeare’s greatest play. Indeed, many theater professionals consider it the greatest play ever written by anyone. The poetry, the drama, the humor, and the complexity of themes and characters certainly make for a terrific evening’s entertainment.

It is also a very long play, but here it has been stripped down to just about two hours with no intermission. In the Olympian article the director was quoted as saying: “We want to kind of strip Shakespeare down to its basic intentions, to its physical reactions. Shakespeare is very poetic, but poetry isn’t always that exciting to watch. You need the action. You need the characters in life or death situations, struggling against something.” I must say that the action was exciting; but so was the poetry, and I was glad to see that many of Shakespeare’s most profound and most enjoyable word play was left intact. I re-read “Hamlet” before going to see this show, and I didn’t miss any of the dialogue that was cut. The cutting was so skillful that unless you are a Shakespearean scholar you’d have to compare scripts side-by-side to even tell what was taken out.

I highly recommend this play.

Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday at 7 p.m. through Aug. 5 in Priest Point Park, Olympia (park in the lot by the playground and walk into the meadow behind the bathrooms).

I also recommend the Animal Fire Theater blog for insightful commentary.

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