Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Review: Hamlet @ Boggy Creek Cemetery

Shakespeare fans, listen up-- Get Thee to a Cemetery! And don't wait. You have only this weekend and next weekend to see Justin Scalise deliver a stunning performance as the mad (or is he?) Prince of Denmark. I've had the pleasure of seeing Scalise in numerous Shakespeare productions over the years-- in fact, knowing he plays the lead was what convinced me to see the show. You see, while I try to catch as much Shakespeare as possible, sometimes my schedule is crazier than the bereaved prince, and I regrettably can't see every play that is staged. Last weekend was quite possibly my busiest of the year (three weddings, some writing deadlines, another show to review). But I didn't care. I knew, going in, I was in for something wonderful and so I made the time. What an excellent choice on my part: Scalise exceeded my expectations and then some.

Where to start? Okay, how about this-- Hamlet, presented by Black Star Events, is being staged by torchlight in Boggy Creek Cemetery, under a huge old tree. (The night I went the moon was just about full, an added touch.) "Staged" isn't precisely the right word, as the stage is comprised of several rugs on ground level. We were encouraged to sit as close as we like and my group sat so close we could have touched the performers (I restrained myself). Let me fast forward for a second and say that afterwards, I emailed Scalise to thank him for his stunning work and to offer an apology. Since my "seat" was a blanket, I reclined and then I reclined some more until I was lying down, propped up on my elbow, like a kid watching TV. In my note, I worried that maybe this seemed to suggest a lack of reverence or a hint of boredom (neither true). Scalise wrote back and made a great point that set my mind at ease: "I think it creates a better, more open energy between actors and audience when everyone can feel free to just relax and enjoy themselves."

How true. You should've seen the crowd sprawled in the cemetery, watching with rapt attention. I had one of those moments I have pretty regularly in this town: We are SO lucky to live in Austin where innovative theater happens all the time.

Getting back to the show. One thing I love about Shakespeare is that in writing about a show I can break my anti-spoiler rule. The material has been playing long enough-- 400+ years-- that most everyone knows the story by now. Hamlet's wicked uncle Claudius knocks off Hamlet's dad (also Hamlet) and seizes both the throne and widow of the dead dude. Hamlet's son goes bonkers, or at least everyone thinks he goes bonkers, and plots revenge. This play has got it all-- a ghost, a sword fight, a doomed love between Hamlet and Ophelia, endless family dysfunction. In fact there's so much drama it makes The Jersey Shore seem like Mary Poppins by comparison.

Another thing I love about Shakespeare is that I have this sort of Bard Amnesia. Doesn't matter how many times I see a show, upon leaving a lot of the details slip away. Like the goldfish swimming past the plastic castle every time I see it again, I'm surprised anew. (Though I have to say that this performance is so great it seems to be burned in my memory now.) And also, this other thing happens for me at Shakespeare. Let's call it the Ye Olde Elvis Costello Effect. Even though I have listened to countless EC records hundreds of times, once in awhile a line will jump out at me that I never heard before, like some secret treasure I overlooked for, say 30 years. Same with Shakespeare, in particular Hamlet, which has so many famous lines in it that even if you never saw it performed you'd recognize much of the writing. (Infinite Jest? Check. Cruel to be Kind? Check. To Be or Not to Be? Check.) This time around, a line surfaced for me that I didn't recall from past performances, and I love it: "Cudgel thy brains no more about it, for your dull ass will not mend his pace with beating."

Getting back to Scalise. Look, I knew going in the man has a passion for Shakespeare that's palpable. He isn't playing the role of Hamlet here-- Scalise IS Hamlet. I mean, he fully embodies the Prince. It's like he's channeling or something. I wish I could describe it better but honestly you have got to see this performance to believe it.

Let me not neglect the rest of the cast here. Many, many wonderful performances are turned in. And if I didn't have to leave for my day job in about five minutes, I'd give you a detailed list. I do want to give a specific shout out to Chuck Ney, who is magnificent in the role of Polonius, father of Ophelia. And the players-- the group that shows up to perform a play within the play-- are so deft and hilarious, particularly in the scene where they are marketing their skills to Hamlet, that I was beside myself.

Y'all? I know this coming weekend is Halloween and doubtless you have bazillions of plans and invites. I suggest you take your party with you to the cemetery. I mean this show is super freaking fantastic. Get there early, as we did, and Dale Flatt, who is in charge of the cemetery, will take you on a really cool tour. Kudos to him for understanding the vision of Scalise-- whose idea it was to stage Hamlet in the cemetery. And kudos all around-- to Director Andrew Matthews, all the folks behind the scenes, and, again, to the wonderful players who have lovingly brought this Hamlet to life.

Oct. 21 – Nov. 6
Thursdays - Saturdays at 7:30 PM
Boggy Creek Cemetery
Circle S Rd. & Dittmar Rd.
Austin, TX 78745

$15 - $35 sliding scale admission
$12 for seniors, students, teachers, APD, AFD and military.
$10 each for groups of 15 or more.

*Ticket purchased at the event are cash only.

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