Hamlet Theatre Review - Theatricum Botanicum's 2010 Season Opener "To Be" the Beginning of a Phenomenal Theatrical Summer

Mike Peebler (l) and Jeff Wiesen (r) alternate in the roles of Hamlet and Laertes

(Topanga Canyon, CA) June, 2010 – Theatricum Botanicum Artistic Director Ellen Geer wrote in her director’s notes of the 2010 Seasonal Opener HAMLET that this classic tale of following your words and thoughts with the appropriate actions is not only applicable to one of the most famous characters in the history of drama, but to us all as well. On a daily basis, we are witness to both minor and significant events in our lives that cause us to stop and think, wondering what to do next. Some of those decisions are easy; others quite complex. And this “cause and effect” syndrome is extremely applicable to the Theatricum Botanicum. 2009 was an incredible year for the Topanga Canyon based theatre company with their brilliant productions of JULIUS CEASAR, THE CHERRY ORCHARD, and especially THE MISER. So, the questions: how can you top that? How can the 2010 Season begin with a bang, not only in terms of the selection for the opening play, but also be done in a unique way? Answer: Hamlet, of course. And in terms of the unique approach? Theatricum Botanicum regulars Mike Peebler, Melora Marshal, Jeff Wiesen, and Susan Angelo alternate their performances as the Prince of Denmark and his conflicted mother, resulting in what may be the best production of this Shakespearean play that has been conjured in Southern California to date.

“Something is rotten in the state of Denmark,” mutters Marcellus, the Captain of the Guard ( Alan Blumenfeld) at the beginning of what is considered to be William Shakespeare’s most complex play. The ghost of Denmark’s king (a powerful Tim Halligan, who also does a nice turn as The Player King) haunts the perimeter of the kingdom. The king’s son, Hamlet ( Mike Peebler and Jeff Wiesen, in select performances) learns about this apparition and confronts it, only to discover that the elder Hamlet was murdered by his own brother Claudius ( Aaron Hendry) in order to marry his late brother’s wife, Gertrude ( Melora Marshall and Susan Angelo, in select performances) and gain power to the throne. But is this ghost telling the truth, or is it a demon from hell causing havoc and mischief on Hamlet’s sanity? In order to get to the truth of the matter, Hamlet feigns madness and causes mischief of his own, misdirecting all parties involved, including the royal couple, the King’s advisor Polonius ( Carl Palmer) and Polonius’s daughter Ophelia ( Willow Geer). And during this journey, Hamlet questions his own sanity, doubts his own feelings regarding the death of his father, and ponders the nature of man, death, and justice. It isn’t until a troupe of players put on a play, adapted by Hamlet himself, that his uncertainty is magically transformed into determination and purposeful action.

Hamlet (Mike Peebler) confronts his mother Gertrude (Melora Marshall)

As always, Ellen Geer’s direction is flawless in its pacing and especially the stage design (meaning, there isn’t any. The stage remains barren in its generic structure except for an occasional bench being brought in and a large crucifix hanging on the second level of the King’s chambers). And Val Miller’s impressive costumes add the right touch to the Medieval period in which the play takes place.However, this is an actor driven production and Geer’s decision to cast four actors to portray Hamlet and Gertrude on alternating dates is nothing short of brilliant. For the Opening Night, Mike Peebler and Melora Marshal portrayed the doomed mother and son, whereas Jeff Wiesen and Susan Angelo portray Laertes and the Player Queen respectively. But on other days, Wiesen and Angelo switch roles with Peebler and Marshal, highlighting the exquisite talent of all four artists. With regard to Peebler, his performance is a lesson in Shakespeare 101. In the beginning of the play, we can feel his disgust at the incestuous relationship that he sees in the court, as well as the pain at the loss of his father, and a sense of betrayal by his own mother. But when he encounters his deceased father, Peebler wonderfully interweaves Hamlet’s doubt, pain, and rage with a nice dose of wit and charm. His “insanity” scenes are hilarious in Peebler’s approach, and yet very revealing. Peebler’s Hamlet is both a warrior and a romantic poet; his eloquence during his soliloquies is unmatched in the monologues’ depth, intensity, and beauty.

His chemistry with his female co-stars is completely electrifying. Melora Marshall’s Gertrude is quite restrained in terms of trying to maintain a façade of regality, but she reveals the Queen’s shame and disgust like little cracks in a vase, until her grief finally explodes when Hamlet confronts her about the murder of her husband. Marshall’s pain is masterfully touching, resulting in her character regaining some of her integrity again. And Willow Geer is radiant as the emotionally fragile Ophelia. Her scenes with Peebler are heartwarming and passionate, especially when Hamlet rejects her in order to protect her from the evil being committed in the kingdom. But when his efforts fail and Ophelia falls into the throes of permanent insanity, Geer’s performance becomes both chilling and tragic. A truly heartbreaking portrayal of the fall of innocence.

Hamlet (Mike Peebler) tries to comfort Ophelia (Willow Geer)

Aaron Hendry was a fascinating casting choice for the villainous role of Claudius, who is normally played by an older actor that matches the age of his widowed queen. However, when Hendry wonderfully exhibits the lasciviousness and diabolical nature of his king, especially during his scenes with his passive wife, all the pieces come together in terms of why the aging Gertrude would want the younger brother: she desires his vitality, which Hendry definitely has. Although not a participant in the murder of her first husband, Gertrude is seduced by the raw lustful presence that Hendry’s Claudius possesses. And his  malevolent satyr is a fine match for Peebler’s justice-seeking Hamlet.

But what is essential is balancing this play’s dark tones with the comedic facets that it possesses. And leading the way to lighten the mood is a truly hilarious, scene-stealing performance by Carl Palmer as Polonius, a pompous, bombastic, mister know-it-all who, in the effort to pontificate on certain subjects, goes off-tangent with side-splitting results. But Palmer doesn’t go overboard, and he walks that tightrope beautifully in terms of interlacing his flawed advisor with genuine sympathy when he is the butt of Hamlet’s witty remarks (which completely go over Polonius’s head) and especially when he shows a warm love for his two children, Laertes and Ophelia. Other comedic reliefs include theatre veteran Alan Blumenfeld’s performance as the loud, yet wise Gravedigger and Cj Merriman’s sycophantic Osric who seems to feel more comfortable in a perpetual state of bowing than walking and talking.

Hamlet (Mike Peebler) ponders about life, death, and justice

The only regret in tonight’s performance is not seeing the four leading actors--- Peebler, Marshall, Wiesen, and Angelo---switch in their respective roles. How would Peebler be as Laertes, and how would Wiesen be as Hamlet? What about Angelo as Gertrude and Marshall as the Player Queen? Would it be a better show? Worse? Or perhaps different? Such questions would probably drive the Prince of Denmark into a frenzy. Fortunately, the answer is simple: Both Wiesen and Angelo are talented and potent artists. Wiesen was an intense powerhouse as the vengeful Laertes, and Angelo was touching as the Player Queen. Without a shadow of doubt, Wiesen and Angelo would give incredible portrayals as Hamlet and Gertrude (as well as Peebler and Marshall in their supporting roles), maintaining the production’s level of theatrical excellence.

Hamlet opened June 5, 2010 and runs through October 2, 2010

The Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum
1419 N. Topanga Canyon Blvd.
Topanga CA90290
(midway between Pacific Coast Highway and the Ventura Freeway)

(310) 455-3723 or www.theatricum.com

Adults: $32 (lower tier); $20 (Upper tier)
Seniors, Students, Equity: $20/$15
Children (5-11): $10
Children under 5: free

The outdoor amphitheater at The Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum is terraced into the hillside of the rustic canyon.Audience members are advised to dress casually (warmly for evenings) and bring cushions for bench seating.Snacks are available at the Hamlet Hut, and picnickers are welcome before and after the performance.

Photos by: Ian Flanders

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