After enduring a number of really awful shows last year (only a couple of them ours), January finds us seeing good theatre right off the bat. We just saw a production of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark by Nevermore Theatre Company in Milwaukee. It was a very solid production and served as a reminder of just how simple good theatre can be.
Their performance space is a tiny, blackbox style space with no flyhouse and little wing space. Now-a-days we’re in the habit of seeing (and oft times, unfortunately, needing) spectacle, stunning scenery, and visual flair. This can be very good for a production or, if not taken seriously in relation to the story being told, it can obscure or destroy a production.
Director Michael DiPadova used a simple festival stage with zero scenery, allowing the actors a blank canvass to paint this tragedy on; nothing came between the audience and actors. This, of course, places much pressure on the actors to really communicate the story to the us–all available crutches have been removed (even props were fairly limited in this prouction).
For the most part, the cast was up to the challenge. Joe Foust and Drew Brhel gave well measured and thoughtful turns as the mad like a fox Hamlet and his greedy, scheming uncle Claudius, respectively. With these two actors, I never found myself saying, “I’ve heard this before.” Joe, especially, gave delightful and fresh sounding readings to very familiar speeches.
William Clifford, as Polonius (and later as the Gravedigger), was a scene-stealer in this show. He was wonderfully funny while allowing Polonius to remain entirely earnest. I thought it was a truly fabulous performance.
What I took most from this show was how truly simple the elements of good theatre are. With only a floor, a few lights (and one wonders if Nevermore actually needed any), and a dozen actors, a thought provoking piece of theatre was presented. It is this type of work that I wish more people would see. No, live theatre is not everyone’s cup of tea, but I’ll always contend more people would love it than actually give it a try. If theatre companies can be brave and stage shows that engage the audience in the script first instead of trying to wow them with spectacle, I believe that fewer theatres would see declining subcriber bases and attendance.
I’m not saying that would be easy, or that spectacle can’t be great theatre. As theare artists, however, we need to remember what it is that makes great theatre: story, and the people who tell it.