Saturday, July 11, 2009

Friday Night in Park Slope: The Piper Theatre's "Hamlet" in Washington Park

Last evening, we went over to Washington Park (it's hard for those of us who grew up with J.J. Byrne Park to get used to the new name, but at least it's not called Washington Mutual Park) for this summer's production by the Piper Theatre of Hamlet.

Last year we enjoyed their A Midsummer's Night Dream, a comedy just perfect for warm-weather outdoor performances, as are most of Shakespeare's comedies. Pretty much everyone knows that Hamlet ends with the stage crawling with corpses, so we were wondering how this would play in the park.

The crowd seemed somewhat smaller than last year. It was an extraordinarily cool night, yet the wind seemed to add to the drama as the sky, and the plot, darkened. The staging under director John P. McEneny was fairly ingenious, accommodating the less-than-perfect conditions for theater at the park.

The actors have to compete with screaming kids in the playground not that far from the stage, passersby with no interest in the show who go on talking, not infrequent ambulance sirens, more occasional police sirens, motorcycles revving, car alarms going off, etc. It ain't the secluded location of the Delacorte Theatre or the Prospect Park Bandshell; at Washington Park, the city in all its energy and messiness surrounds you.

Anyway, the actors, wearing what looked to us like mid-19th-century garb, did a great job. The production gathered strength as the night wore on, and by Act IV, the pace became fast and the momentum unstoppable. We don't have a cast list, but the actor playing Hamlet did a good job, with some interesting business at points. The "to be or not to be" soliloquy was played atop a ladder in the middle of the audience, and it worked, as did some really strong scenes between Hamlet and Ophelia and Hamlet and his mother. Some bits, like Ophelia's use of yarn both before and after madness strikes, were wonderful.

The cast seemed uniformly more than competent, with especially nice turns by the actors playing Polonius, Horatio (a female), Laertes and others. Even small parts, like Osric and a woman playing what seemed like a lady in waiting to Gertrude, who mostly had to stand in the background and react, were handled with skill.

Because of the setup of the small stage in the park, the actors are often seen walking around offstage, and yet that was less distracting than enlightened as they stayed in character and were unobtrusive. The cuts made in the play were judicious, particularly in getting rid of Fortinbras, and ending the play in innovative fashion.

The time flew by for us, so we were surprised to see how late it was when we checked our cell phone as we walked down Fourth Avenue to get the G train home. The Piper Theatre production of Hamlet was a great summer night of Shakespeare.

No comments: