Saturday, August 1, 2009

Saturday Evening on the Upper West Side: Hudson Warehouse presents "Hamlet" in Riverside Park

This evening we went to the Upper West Side, four blocks from where we spent every summer and several autumns from 1983 to 1990, to the north patio of the Soldiers' and Sailors' Monument at 89th Street in Riverside Park.

There we tremendously enjoyed a sprightly, fast-moving production of Hamlet put on by Hudson Warehouse in its sixth season as "The Other Free Shakespeare in the Park."

Of course, there are by now a bunch of other free Shakespeares in New York City parks (and parking lots and other locations), as these articles in the New York Times and Daily News attest.

We've already seen the Piper Theatre's Hamlet in Washington Park, and while the Hudson Warehouse's Hamlet will end tomorrow night (if it doesn't rain Sunday) and they're starting a new production later this week of Midsummer Night's Dream, we've already seen a version of that comedy from the Continuum Company at Von King Park, with more Shakespeare, including Dreams, to come.

So, if as the Times says, "is crawling with melancholy Danes," what made tonight's production in Riverside Drive special? A lot.

We left Williamsburg at 5:30 p.m. and took the L train to the A train to 59th Street and then the 1 train to 86th Street, our old stop. But there was no time to go by our old digs at "Red House" (350 West 85th Street, near Riverside Drive) as it was getting close to the Hudson Warehouse starting time of 6:30 p.m.

We got there on the dot, and the play started on the dot. Approaching the top of the steps at the monuments' north face, we saw an actor in costume just ahead of us, and heard the first line of the play, "Who's there?"

The Ghost of Hamlet's father, and other characters in the tragedy came through the audience on the levels of steps, making their way miraculously fluidly through a sometimes narrow path of people sitting in rapt attention (as well as drinking and eating picnic food from Zabar's and elsewhere).

Directed by veteran Nicholas Martin-Smith, the production's staging and acting were uniformly first-rate. Sadly, we missed being there when programs were being passed out, and once we made our way to the first level and managed to find a corner of the concrete to sit cross-legged, the play was underway and so we were envious of our fellow audience members who kept looking to see who was responsible for an especially good performance in which role. [Updated August 18: the Hudson Warehouse folks have kindly emailed us a PDF of the playbill so we've revised this post to include the actors' names.]

After the play, following our donation to one of the actors passing the hat around - the actress who effectively played Gertrude [Kathrin Kana], reminding us of a controlled, tight-smiled Hillary Rodham Clinton, we looked for a program in vain - even in the trash cans on Riverside Drive. At home, we looked in vain for a cast list online. So we're sorry we can't single out by name anyone.

Hamlet was mostly played by an intense, handsome young actor who seemed to possess a sense of absurd humor we'd never seen before in this major role. (Yesterday WNYC's Sara Fishko had an amazing eight-minute "Fishko Files" segment featuring different approaches to the role of Hamlet, ending with the "To be or not to be" monologue with alternating lines from numerous famous actors' interpretations.)

We say "mostly played" because this Hamlet had a doppelganger, which confused us at first. The main Hamlet wore a dark sports jacket and a hipster-like V-neck white T-shirt, but there was another guy, also in a dark sports jacket but a black round-neck T-shirt and a more brooding and sober look. He appeared onstage sometimes with Hamlet, off to the side or nearby, and spoke parts of the monologues.
Then there was a tripleganger (made-up word), a mustached, more solid, stolid-looking guy in a colored sports jacket and shirt and tie. We have been unable to find any actual reviews of this production (a shame! because there's no way we are doing credible drama criticism here, as we're not equipped), so we'll just tell you that the debating multiple Hamlets we took to be various sides of the character. To be simplistically psychoanalytical: id, ego, and superego. Or whatever tripartite division of human character there might be. [The three Hamlets were Tyler D. Hall, Chris Behan and Michael C. Freeland.]

This worked exceptionally well, as did the melange of different costumes, from current outfits to the chain-mail garb of the dead king. Claudius [Joe Hamel] and Gertrude's outfits look like today's standard-issue politician suits; the wonderfully effective Polonius [David Palmer Brown]- pompous, dithering, and apparently suffering from acute allergies and constantly blowing his nose, wore almost clownish formal tails and sometimes carried an umbrella (like the Penguin in Batman).

Hamlet takes off his jacket and gets his T-shirt filled with blood after killing Claudius; later, when he escapes his sea adventure and death at the hands of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who are played effectively for mordant laughs by a duo [Matt Fraley, Lenny Ciotti] who are dressed and behave like boorish college frat boys, Hamlet is wearing a kind of dashingly romantic pirate attire. He and Laertes fight their final battle - in the dark (there's no artificial light as far as we can tell, so that's why the play had to begin at 6:30 p.m.) wearing undershirts, and Hamlet eventually takes off his, revealing a cross around his neck and a large imperial (Danish?) tattoo on his back.

Ophelia always strikes us as a problem role, but the Hudson Workshop Ophelia [Christine Grenier] was one of the most effective we've seen: girlish and prim and silly all at the same time, and devastatingly effective in her mad scene, played in an undone bathrobe with one of her (simulated) naked breasts carelessly exposed. It was a great choice to have the herbs she gives out ("rosemary for remembrance," etc.) to the horrified others and takes herslef not be flowers but pills from a prescription bottle.

With minimal scenery, splendid use of the steps (alerted by the 10yo kids on the ledge by us, we found we could look through the little columns by our "seat" and see the actors' "dressing room" off to the side, but we preferred not to see them preparing to go back onstage, not wanting to spoil the wonderful illusion of theater), a uniformly intelligent cast made the play move surprisingly quickly, especially since this production, unlike the Piper Theater's, seemed to leave the play mostly intact without any shortening.

We could go on and on about what a great production this was. The triple-play most famous monologue was done excellently, with a deliberate false start/rehearsal on the part of one of the Hamlets; the Player King and Player Queen [Tim Mullins, Carrisa Cordes] did the most effective, and comic, interpretation of the play within the play we'd ever seen, with two rival hammy actors trying to upstage each other; and overall, the production emphasized more than any other we're familiar with how ha-ha funny a surprising portion of Hamlet can be.

It was uncomfortable, frankly, to sit cross-legged or in lotus position most of the play (we were able to move up to the steps after someone left), and stuff (pods) occasionally fell from the heavily-leaved trees (we noticed a lot of the audience in front of us had green bits in their hair); there was competition to the actors' clear diction from planes in the LaGuardia flight pattern and M5 buses chugging their way up and down Riverside Drive. But we didn't mind; the play kept us intrigued throughout. (And once the sky darkened, and the play moved inexorably to its mass death conclusion, the fireflies around us seemed to be an integral part of the action.)

And we got the thrill of having the formally-dressed ambassador and Fortinbras, in combat garb, come through the audience and stand almost next to us at the play's end. Along with everyone else, we gave the terrific cast a huge round of applause.

Hopefully they'll get more sophisticated criticism than we can provide and someone will post pics of the production not taken from so far away with a crappy cell phone camera. The fine Hudson Warehouse deserves many accolades for this wonderful production.

We decided to walk across West 89th Street from Riverside to Central Park West, mostly to recall the 1965-66 school year, when we first came to this neighborhood to attend tenth grade at The Franklin School, which was at 18 West 89th Street and had been there since 1912, forty years after the school was founded in 1872.

In that building with the red doors, we read some great books for the first time: in Mrs. Youman's literature class, the novels of Sir Walter Scott, Fielding and Defoe and the plays of Racine and Corneille; in Andres Ramos's Spanish class, the beautiful Platero y Yo by Juan Ramon Jimenez; and Seamus O'Hanlon, our great English teacher, let us do book reports on John O'Hara's Pal Joey and Aldous Huxley's proto-hippie Island.

We also remember the session with our headmaster, the legendary M.C. Spahn, when he told us no student had given him so much trouble since Truman Capote. His son Stephen Spahn, a fledgling young teacher back then, is now chancellor of The Dwight School, which merged with Franklin and now occupies 18 West 89th Street, not far off Central Park West.

The next year we transfered to Midwood High School closer to home, but that year was our introduction to the Upper West Side and a different kind of people than populated the furthest boondocks of southeastern Brooklyn.

Did we mention we first read Hamlet here?

1 comment:

Joseph said...

If you would like a program to Hamlet please let me know at

Joe Hamel
Asst. Artistic Director
Hudson Warehouse