The play’s the thing all right, but Elements Theatre Company wants the audience to do more than just take in the dialog, scenery and costumes.
Elements is performing its latest theatrical enterprise, Shakespeare’s Own: Vicious or Virtuous? …You Decide, and the cast and crew have mounted another fine production at Paraclete House on Rock Harbor in Orleans. Selected scenes from the tragedies Hamlet and King Lear are performed by ETC, while the audience is asked to listen with a new ear and decide whether five key characters fall on the side of virtuous (“one who sacrifices himself for the good of others”) or vicious (“one who sacrifices others for the good of himself”), according to a working definition given in the program. Ballots are handed out and tallied, and the audience’s judgment is rendered at the end of the play, to a bow from each of the characters being judged.
Hold on – deciding may not be as easy as it sounds! Conversing with audience members during the intermission, director Sr. Danielle Dwyer (who also plays Queen Gertrude in the Hamlet portion) explained that she tried to choose scenes that stressed the more ambiguous aspects of the characters, as they wrestle with the moral and emotional crises that beset them. She emphasized that the performers play their roles “straight up” from the playbook – “We don’t want the actors to manipulate the audience.”
Throughout, the audience is confronted with the double-sided nature of a character’s disposition, where there’s a contrast between the power of spoken words and the actual deeds that are done (or not). Witness Claudius, who declaims in his cry to the gods: “Forgive me my foul murder!” – but quickly realizes, “That cannot be; since I am still possess’d/Of those effects for which I did the murder,/My crown, mine own ambition, and my queen.”
Throughout these scenes, the cast demonstrates a grasp of the fine and fragile line that separates the venal act from one more praiseworthy, and enables us to savor Shakespeare’s great gift…. his ability to convey his complex and sometimes archaic speech so that we clearly understand what’s going on, and – most amazingly – see the “modern” embodied in that sixteenth-century language. Hearing expertly trained Shakespearean performers speaking these centuries-old lines and recognizing some aspects of Goneril, Hamlet, Cordelia or Claudius in ourselves can give us a turn. Whether whiny, spoiled, forgiving, selfless or treacherous, these characters can remind us of … us.
To enhance their command of the Bard’s turns of phrase, ETC players received extensive language-based training with teachers trained in Shakespearean theater from such places as London and Lenox, Mass., including well-known voice and speech coach Louis Colaianni in New York City. Down to the smallest spoken part, the actors’ performances admirably reflect this rigorous training.
This show is a superlative example of Elements’ ability to mount a fine production. The costume designers have emphasized the overall theme of presenting a neutral “face” so as not to distract the audience from the personal dramas enacted onstage, and players are beautifully attired in muted grays with a few mauve digressions, while the sets are plain horizontal platforms and cubes of varying heights. Periodically an actor takes the spotlight to fill in the narrative gaps, so the drama retains its continuity with the scenes not shown. The action moves seamlessly, and the timing is pitch-perfect.
One dramatic turn has eight white-masked, white-clad actors portraying the ghost of Hamlet’s father, to enormous dramatic effect. Appearing from an enveloping mist, they eventually surround a kneeling Hamlet, speaking singly and in unison, and creating a sort of undulating wave of sound.
In a question-and-answer session following the performance, cast members were asked how they felt about their own characters and the judgments passed on them. All expressed their goal of presenting the characters “well enough” so that the audience could take a closer look at various facets of their personalities and thus make a less biased judgment. Lear (Brad Lussier) suggested that Lear himself “talks more than he does,” and thus his sins are perhaps more “pardonable.” While Claudius (Chris Kanaga) admitted praying for forgiveness, in the end he’s done so many treacherous deeds he “can’t go back.” Of her role as Gertrude, Dwyer felt that despite the queen’s vulnerability and weak nature, “In the end, Gertrude wants to be queen.” Hamlet (Kyle Norman) really “wanted to be virtuous.”
In the end, it’s a complicated decision for audience members to make. We’re asked to take a tantalizing tightrope walk and weigh the discrepancies between words and what may lie behind them – as Claudius well knew, when he ended his soliloquy with, “My words fly up, my thoughts remain below: Words without thoughts never to heaven go.” This fine play draws us closer to the magic of Shakespeare and the great gift of his language, traveling to us over a space of more than 400 years. And it’s a tribute to Elements’ stated purpose of believing “in the vitality of the word, and the community born between playwright, actor and audience.”