Speaking the Speech 

Hamlet's troubles are few but fatal; Breezeway plans to take on Chekhov.

Shakespeare's verse has assonance out the ass, more consonance than you can shake a stick at, and an abundance of awesome alliteration! In fact, Hamlet's famous charge to the actors, "Speak the speech trippingly on the tongue," is a tip-top, tried-and-true testimonial to the terrificness of using lots of words that all begin with the same letter. What Hamlet is saying in this passage is essentially "Hey, you stupid actors, don't mangle your words and get on with it." But too often this lesson is interpreted to mean just the opposite. It becomes a license for self-indulgent actors, a license to look at the crowd and scream, "Hey look, Ma, I'm saying lots of words that all begin with the same letter." And too often, this same misprision wrecks Theatre Memphis' visually lush, often daring, and very nearly boring take on Shakespeare's original man in black.

Of course, there's method in the Bard's linguistic lunacy. Mnemonic devices help actors learn their lines, unlocking all the while a play's intrinsic rhythms. But these tricks (or tools, if you prefer) are only a road map and not a destination. An actor with as much Shakespeariance as TM's Hamlet du jour, John Maness, should know this. But against his own character's sound advice, and more so than any of his castmates, Maness "saw[s] the air with his hand[s]," pronouncing every "Oh!" as if it were his very last. In the second act, however, Maness seems to find his voice, speaking to both ideas and castmates rather than at them. Still, much of this Hamlet's sluggishness rests directly on this actor's typically capable shoulders.

As the murderous usurper King Claudius, Barclay Roberts never plays the villain, and his performance is made the richer for it. Ann Sharp tackles incestuous Queen Gertrude with all the can-do cluelessness of a suburban soccer mom, and it works. John Rone's Polonius can list toward the artificial, but still he manages to make the silly curmudgeon as endearing as he is annoying. The chorus roles are variously filled with an equitable assortment of divinity and ridiculousness. But in the center, there is always Maness, who has put too much faith in the sound of Shakespeare's syllables and not enough in their matter, and whose anger is so consistently overwhelming that it grows monotonous. And for the sake of fair Ophelia, I must ask, Oh! John! Where is the love?

In his stated attempt to create a conversational Hamlet, director Bo List has failed. In his attempt to turn Hamlet into an essay on fatalism, he has largely succeeded, and many of his gorgeous visual experiments make up for what could have been (and sometimes still are) fatal performance flaws.

Michael Williams' golden set is a wonderful, multifunctional work of art, but costume designer Ashley Whitten might consider that, in a play where one character is called on the carpet for wearing all-black, it's best not to also dress half the cast in black. It just makes Hamlet look trendy.

It's unfortunate that beautiful design and solid directorial concept only go so far. TM's Hamlet could have been magnificent. Instead, for all its potential, it seems less adventurous and fresh than the unexpectedly light, almost breezy production of Hamlet currently playing at Rhodes College's McCoy Theatre.

Shooting the Breezeway: BTC mounts Chekhov and a new play

by Nate Eppler.

"We haven't sold out every night, but we are doing really, really well," says Memphis playwright Nate Eppler of his and director Bret Falco's Breezeway Theatre Company. BTC will be closing its first season with Chekhov's The Three Sisters, which runs from April 17th to 26th, and Eppler's own Bit, which runs May 2nd to 10th. "We did Shorty Hawkins at TheatreWorks," Eppler explains, "and it sold out two out of three nights. Then Jackie [Nichols] invited us to [become a resident company] at TheatreWorks, and we weren't exactly sure how it would go. For instance, we had a slot during Christmas, when all the other Christmas plays were going on, and we did a play about the '70s with nudity and mature themes and we did okay."

From sex plays at Christmastime to a musical farce about a town where tomatoes have been outlawed, it almost seems as if the Breezeway Theatre is incapable of doing something ordinary. The company has attracted an audience -- a rather young audience, at that -- that might, under normal conditions, not be prone to see theater at all.

"That's one of the reasons we wanted to do Three Sisters," Eppler says. Chekhov's play is about a group of siblings who dream of moving to Moscow but somehow never make it.

Three Sisters will be directed by retired U of M professor and Chekhov enthusiast Josie Helming. "So it will be very Josie," Eppler says. By that, we may assume that he means vocal clarity and briskness of pace will be the order of the day. Helming's fairly recent production of Uncle Vanya often seemed more like a Mamet play than what we have come to expect from Chekhov.

"Bit is very Mamety," says Eppler of his own play, which officially closes the season. "Is Mamety a word?" he then asks. "Because it's not Mametesque." Eppler says that his play about a group of comedians fits nicely with Three Sisters because "the sisters all want to go to Moscow but never get there. In Bit the characters get where they wanted to go but find out they never wanted to go there in the first place."

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