Coriolanus and Hamlet, American Shakespeare Center

This weekend, the final production of the American Shakespeare Center's fall repertory opened with their Coriolanus. As ever, the timing of Shakespeare's words from over four hundred years ago can feel startlingly relevant in a world of politicians, pride, and populism, and of wars and the deaths of innocent civilians. During the intermission break, Brandon Carter (current Artistic Director of the ASC and a member of the season repertory ensemble) led the company and the audience in a rendition of "War," the song made famous by Edwin Starr. The enthusiasm the song met with seemed equally fueled by the conflicts of today as by the frustration of watching ancient Roman battles and warriors play out their stories onstage.

Angela Iannone. Photo by Alaina Smith.
 


There was much to admire on stage, with actor Angela Iannone an absolute standout as the ultimate Roman matron, Coriolanus' mother Volumnia. Within the text, some characters poke fun at Coriolanus' strong ties to his mother even as an adult with a family of his own, but Iannone's performance was utterly unconcerned with the judgements of others, remaining fiercely controlled and dignified, and utterly devoted to her Roman ideals. As an Actor's Renaissance production, the ensemble's work kept the pace beautifully fluid and the momentum strong, but it does also make it tricky to cite where the blame might lie for what failed to work well on stage at Friday night's opening performance.

The production at opening night was simply not ready yet, as the lead actor remained on book for the entire performance. There was not an explanation or context given for the situation that I was aware of, but it had an enormous impact on the success of the production as a whole. When your lead actor isn't able to fully connect with either the ensemble or the audience because his eyes are continually drawn down towards the page, the production suffers. I don't feel the need to name the actor or to enumerate the effect any further; while more could be said, I don't think it adds much to the conversation. It was truly disappointing that the production had clipped wings on opening night, but I sincerely hope for the sake of the good work being done, that the remainder of the run is able to take wing as its potential for success is clear.

I was pleased to be able to see more of the current repertory with the Hamlet that has run since the end of September, and which most notably stars company member Meg Rodgers in the title role, with Brandon Carter as her Ophelia, under the direction of Cameron Knight. This production seems keenly interested in the humanizing, private grief of Hamlet, as well as the generational tensions that might be keeping a fully grown prince from assuming a throne that the elder generation is refusing to abdicate. In this particular Denmark, we are able to open in a scene of Hamlet's very private grief, which helps to recast him from an abstract, infamous Danish prince into the body of Rodgers, whose frame shakes with sobs even as she smiles at memories in her grief, effectively taking us into the journey of this specific incarnation of Hamlet. Rodgers' Hamlet is one that relishes the break from expectations that feigning madness creates, and it's no wonder, when Knight's direction emphasizes the Ghost of the late king (Matthew Henerson, in a very effective performance that also includes doubling as the usurping Claudius) as a force that literally enacts the trauma of the elder generation onto Hamlet's own body, compelling him to undergo the tortuous physical experience of his father's death. Nia Safarr Banks's costume design echoes the tensions in the court, with the younger generations dressed in colorful contemporary clothing, while Gertrude (Erica Cruz Hern√°ndez), Claudius, and Polonius are notably dressed in early modern clothing; Fortinbras, included in this production, effectively points toward what the future will hold in a costume that echoes the younger generation.

 These elements combine into a very effective Hamlet, but it's worth taking special note of the parallel journey of Carter's Ophelia while all of the drama at the high court takes place.

Brandon Carter, Matthew Henerson, and Erica Cruz Hern√°ndez. Photo by October Grace Media.

 

Carter imbues his performance with a softness and vulnerability that feels striking even before Ophelia's madness takes over, and brings a femininity that steers firmly away from parody or camp and sits firmly within the ASC's approach to playing gender on its stages. It's within the mad scenes that Carter's performance takes the role to places I have never had a chance to see before, as Ophelia's breakdown truly comes out of his own Black body. Carter has the freedom to bring every element on the table into his Ophelia, as he enters wearing a crown made of the tiny Polaroid photos he habitually takes of his family and those around him, and carrying a bouquet of the now-shredded letters from Hamlet. Some productions glide over the transgressive elements of her songs, preferring an Ophelia to be some sort of sad, limping creature of pity; in Carter's hands, the songs are full of pain and anger as well as grief, and his renditions leap into enacting American minstrelsy.  It's truly shocking, and entirely effective. 

As I left the theatre, I heard someone in the audience say that it was so good, they never need to see another Hamlet. I can't imagine feeling that way, since for me, the beauty of Shakespeare is that the more productions you are able to see, the more you add new resonances of every brilliant choice into your own individual overlay of the play. I know I'll keep Carter's version of Ophelia's songs with me, along with the transcendent face of Rodgers as her Hamlet nears death, coming to a sudden realization in answer to her earlier question in the simple line "But let it be." It's what keeps us coming back to Shakespeare, and certainly what keeps me coming back to the ASC.



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