Hollywood Forever Cemetery
It isn’t a familiar Shakespearean epigram which comes to mind watching this ambitious production of the Bard’s enduring classic Hamlet unfold under the stars and amid the regally gnarled old trees, the ominous stone crypts, and families of honking geese which join the hopefully undisturbed sleepers who have populated Hollywood Forever Cemetery from as early as 1899. Instead, it’s a thought from Thoreau: “Sincerity is a great but rare virtue, and we pardon to it much complaining, and the betrayal of many weaknesses.”
This youthful and plucky troupe of players tacking one of old Will’s most oft-butchered plays is nothing if not incredibly sincere and, considering an otherwise warm summer evening which can be spent spread out on the cool damp grass in the middle of an eccentric local landmark with a picnic dinner and a nice bottle of Pinot Noir close at hand, things could be much worse.
Still, they could be lots better. Director Brianna Lee Johnson’s inspired use of Douglas Fairbanks’ majestic marble tomb as a playing space — and her creative al fresco staging around the sunken garden which surrounds it — once again proves this unique place to be an incredible resource for Los Angeles artists to explore, just as Circle X did so brilliantly a few Christmases ago with their original groundbreaking environmental presentation here of Marley’s Ghost.
In Johnson’s imaginative vision of Hamlet, poor Ophelia actually drowns before our eyes in the Fairbanks memorial’s reflecting pool and is buried in what eerily looks like an actual professionally-mined fresh grave dug along the hillside. Still, direction is more than coming up with inventive visual tableaux and here Johnson falls down on the job, letting her performers become talking heads, spouting the rich language of the play without ever making much of a personal connection with the words or between one another.
It takes either a magnificent veteran actor or someone with a massive ego problem to tackle the title character of this piece and the clearly gifted Dean Chekvala has many of the right tools to do so. Unfortunately, he also never alters his cadence in the delivery of his well-known lines, making each of the Danish prince’s revelations on life seem exactly like the one before it and, more damning, repeatedly dropping the ends of his sentences so all thoughts are swallowed up and lost in the damp night air.
As his Ophelia, Sarah Utterback is nothing if not incredibly brave, yet under the complete absence of Johnson’s guidance here, her mad scene becomes almost comical in its approach, rendering the line “How now, Ophelia?” a bit gratuitous, as the answer is plainly not well at all; if straightjackets had been in use in 1602, Utterback’s Ophelia would surely have been in one.
There’s nothing harder to watch than young actors not yet fully trained giving their impression of old age. York Griffith’s barking Claudius and Katharine Brandt’s thin-voiced Gertrude are testament to that widespread malady, while Sean Sellars’ stiff-legged, gravelly Polonius gives the impression this actor is under the misconception he’s playing Grandpa Vanderhof in a junior college production of You Can’t Take It With You.
Still, all the young’uns braving the encroaching night chill and navigating the memorial park’s steep hillsides have perceptible promise, with particularly fine work offered by Derek Long as the Ghost of Hamlet’s father, who appears bathed in Jaymi Lee Smith’s sufficiently ethereal lighting along the distant wall of the park’s signature celebrity-filled mausoleum, and a hilarious blackened-tooth turn from Clark Harding and Stephen Steelman as the play’s rustic gravediggers, providing the familiar comic relief Shakespeare never hesitated to employ to keep the Globe’s easily displeased rabble from throwing rotten tomatoes at the players.
Especially notable in this large ensemble cast is the unfettered natural style and arresting comedic simplicity brought to the proceedings by the completely comfortable and yet never distracting Eric Hunicutt as Guildenstern, this Puck-ish kid proving himself to be an actor with an obvious future. His scenes alongside Ryan Pfeiffer as Rosencrantz are the evening’s best, including a particularly playful but potentially bone-crushing wrestling scene that showcases Ned Mochel’s excellent fight choreography, something which again becomes a dynamic and rousing addition to this Hamlet when Chekvala faces Zach Alden’s spirited Laertes in the pair’s final adversarial confrontation.
It should also be noted in their favor that this unevenly trained company of players collectively known as Tall Blonde Productions navigates the immense outdoor playing area without benefit of microphones or amplification of any kind, only occasionally drowned out by the city’s ever-encroaching helicopters (which, with the exception of Long’s considerate apparition, they talk through rather than holding) and the calling out of the park’s resident geese and ducks, who appear to be their most vocal when the actors and Lindsay Jones’ sound plot get their loudest.
Perhaps these feathered friends of Hollywood Forever’s more silent inhabitants, such as Rudolph Valentino, Cecil B. DeMille, Jesse Lasky, Clifton Webb, Norma Talmadge and Bugsy Siegel, are speaking for them all, crying out in protest and wondering when these people are going to stop shouting and go home. For all its possibilities, after nearly three hours sitting on the hard wet ground watching this unabridged Hamlet unfold, it’s honestly difficult not to agree with their braying remonstrations.
Hamlet plays through July 29 at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery, 6000 Santa Monica Bl., Hollywood; for tickets, call 800.595.4849.