reviewed by Larry Adams

There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.”

  • Hamlet

Years ago I attended a lecture by Kurt Vonnegut in which he presented a graphical analysis of why classic theater (i.e. Shakespeare) was beautiful and timeless, whereas modern theater (i.e. episodic television) was not. As you might imagine, the acerbic Vonnegut’s tongue was planted firmly in cheek as he literally “graphed” Magnum P.I. and then Shakespeare on the chalkboard at the front of the auditorium, but the point still seemed valid: certainty vs ambiguity. Modern television, or at least that of the 80’s, presented the viewer with a definitively good situation, which was then disrupted by a problem, which was then resolved by the end of the hour- up, then down, then up again on the graph. With Shakespeare, Vonnegut argued, it was never quite clear what was good or what was bad, a straight line across the graph, sending the audience out of the Globe Theater in London with things to endlessly ponder, argue and discuss. Like today’s movie phenomenon Joker, in which a disturbed loner’s murders become a blank slate for an angry mob to interpret as a social movement (in a film so cryptic that, ironically enough, seemingly everyone on the internet feels compelled to suffuse it with their own meaning too), the genius of Shakespeare is in its habit of leaving the audience with questions rather than answers. Great art, whether it be Joker, the Mona Lisa with her enigmatic smile, or even a blank white canvas with some slightly ochre-ish lines (for all you Yasmina Reza fans out there), is as much about the viewer as the artist.

And so it is with Hamlet, one of two productions opening the 2019 Indy Bard Fest this past Thursday night. Perhaps Shakespeare’s most famous and endlessly analyzed play, the story of the melancholy prince begins with a ghost and a demand for revenge- both of which are somewhat problematic concepts for the presumably Catholic Hamlet- winds its way through plots and counterplots, decisiveness and indecision, and ends in murder. Lots and lots of murder. What was the point- or rather points- of it all? Was Hamlet sane or mad? Is vengeance noble or tragic? Is life fleeting and ephemeral, or grand and eternal? These questions and more have fueled the careers of four centuries worth of theater critics, and now, via the vision and able direction of Doug Powers, will keep Indy Bard Fest audiences thinking far longer than their drives home.

from left – King Claudius (Eric Bryant), Hamlet (Brian G. Hartz) and Queen Gertrude (Jean Arnold) in a scene from Carmel Theatre Company’s “Hamlet”

First, let me get my gripes out of the way, because this is how theater critics earn their pay and get famous:

For one, the setting is, well… “stark,” would be one way of putting it. “Uninspired” might be another. Black box theater can be a particularly effective draw on the imagination, and undoubtedly is a must to some degree when turning over shows as quickly as Bard Fest requires, but the interior of the Fringe Theater on St. Clair Street is a bit too bland to pull this off with complete success. A little bit of window dressing would have helped immensely with setting the mood.

Volume, too, was sometimes a problem, even from the typically booming Prince Hamlet- particularly during softer moments of dialogue played against sparse but oddly superfluous pre-recorded bits of old-time radio and military-ish something-or-other. Shakespeare can easily enough begin to sound like word-salad to the modern ear without losing half the lines to a soundtrack.

Finally (in a gripe that admittedly sits squarely in the eye of this beholder), the play is served up with the fairly modern theatrical conceit of a contemporary setting, full of guards with semi-automatic weapons and courtiers in suits and ties. As someone who believes in proper context as the key to the interpretation of any writing, I must admit at the outset that I am not a fan of this technique, though I know it’s all the rage. Shakespeare was a product of a particular time, a particular place and a particular society; to tear his words from their milieu and stuff them into the semi-present can serve only to distract and misdirect from the bard’s original thoughts and themes. In the past, there was at least some novelty to this approach, but now it just seems tired, repetitive, and too clever by half.

Nowhere is this time-shift more jarring and out of place than during the second-act burial of (Spoiler Alert!) Ophelia, during which the two gravediggers are presented as black-clad, sunglasses-and-beret-attired 60’s beat poets- an anachronism within an anachronism- playing the whole scene seemingly purely for laughs. I get it that these are archetypal Shakespearean fools, and thus inherently somewhat comical, but there really is some meat on the bones of their dialogue and it gets lost here in the giggles. When the melancholy Prince Hamlet then uncharacteristically joins in the yucks- playing what should be a thoughtful speech on mortality practically as a burlesque- and the First Gravedigger/Beat Poet starts thumping two skulls like bongos, the production comes dangerously close to turning Shakespeare’s masterpiece into a Saturday Night Live parody of itself. This is surprising, as elsewhere in the evening, the humor Shakespeare himself crafted into his script is played flawlessly and to the desired effect; it’s unclear to me why the director felt the bard needed some over the top comedy help in this particular scene. It clearly generated plenty of laughs from the audience, but sadly detracted from the overall effect of the play.

On to the good (and there is a LOT of good):

First off, the direction. My personal beefs with Armani-wearing medieval kings and Bongo Gravediggers aside, Mr. Powers has molded a cast filled with wonderful characterizations held together by honest, powerful relationships, and he has birthed a production that (contrary to popular stereotypes of Shakespeare) is positively crackling with energy from its eerie start on the ramparts of the Danish castle to its bloody, climactic finish. When you rise from your seat after a three-hour performance on a work night disappointed only by the fact that there isn’t more to see, you know the director has nailed it.

“To be or not to be…” – Brian G. Hartz takes the title role in Carmel Theatre Company’s production of “Hamlet”

Second: the actors. Shakespeare is tough to perform. I haven’t attempted it since doing a skit at the front of Mrs. Pursell’s fifth grade classroom (I played Hamlet, coincidentally enough, in a portrayal I’m sure Central Elementary School still heralds as “A Triumph of the Prepubescent Performing Arts”). Every single one of this cast has brought their A game to this production, investing each line of dialogue with meaning and thoughtfully integrating their part or parts into the whole. Standouts in the supporting cast on this particular night were Tony Armstrong in multiple roles (but most particularly for his powerful rendition of a soliloquy about the death of King Priam and Queen Hecuba in the Trojan War) and Rachel Snyder, who, even in the fairly small role of the courtier Osric, nearly wordlessly delivers some of the play’s most appropriately laugh-out-loud moments.

Hamlet (Brian G. Hartz) contemplates his actions against King Claudius (Eric Bryant) in a scene from Carmel Theatre Company’s “Hamlet”

Of course, Hamlet belongs to its namesake, and I truly cannot imagine a more dynamic yet nuanced performance- amateur or professional- than the virtual acting clinic put on by Brian G. Hartz Thursday night. I have seen Mr. Hartz once before, in an outstanding performance as Dr. Martin Dysart in Equus, but his portrayal of the tragic prince sets a new bar for excellence in Indianapolis theater. He completely inhabits the character and soars through the wild range of emotions and intensities the character requires. His performance by itself is well worth the time spent and price of admission. If any Indy-area actors want to see how it’s all supposed to be done, this is the place and he’s the guy.

Finally: Shakespeare. Need I say more? Well, yeah, actually I do. Because, like a lot of people, I don’t really like Shakespeare. It’s old. It’s wordy. It’s difficult to follow in the theater and impossible to read on the page. It takes work, and I’m lazy.

But maybe it’s worth the work. Because it’s also important. It’s thoughtful. It’s surprisingly witty. It’s ambiguous. It’s a straight line across Kurt Vonnegut’s chalkboard and into your head. It’s practically timeless. And it’s at Indy Bard Fest right now.

Go see Carmel Theatre Company’s Hamlet at Indy Bard Fest. I may not be a big fan of Shakespeare, but if it were all done this well, maybe I could be. You can find tickets and schedules at indybardfest.com .

  • photos by Antonio Chapital