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"The Commedia Snow White," June 13-22, Columbia Children's Theatre,

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USC's Hamlet Offers Visual Twist, Strong Performances

Review by August Krickel.

As a friend commented after the lights went up, setting Hamlet in a madhouse is a production design concept that deserved to be done. After all, Shakespeare's classic tragedy is full of madness, both feigned (as the title prince assumes an "antic disposition" to divert attention from his plans of revenge) and real (as Ophelia snaps following her father's death.) In fact, if the audience never saw the ghost of Hamlet's father appear to a number of characters, we might add "seeing visions" and "hearing voices" to Hamlet's list of symptoms that include depression and thoughts of hurting himself and others. While this visually engaging gimmick is ultimately just a gimmick, USC's new production of one of Shakespeare's greatest works never strays too far from the beauty of the language and the intensity of the play's themes, thanks to strong performances from the cast.

Department chair Jim Hunter's set is reminiscent of a decaying, late Victorian-era asylum, much like the abandoned buildings found locally on Bull Street.  A series of arches and an upper walkway tower over the stage, and allow for some striking lighting effects. The main performance space is largely bare, with only a few props - a wheelchair, a hospital gurney - used as everything from the royal throne to a bed. April Andrew's brilliant costume design continues in this motif, with some characters wearing street clothes, while some sport pajama-like uniforms, and others are attired in what might be cast-off clothing from hospital staff (especially those who may be untrustworthy.)  Principal characters like Gertrude and Ophelia seem to have fashioned dresses from straitjackets, as has King Claudius, but with his jacket simultaneously recalling an officer's uniform. Yet all of this reinvention notwithstanding, director Robert Richmond's production remains completely faithful to Shakespeare's text. Richmond has, however, wisely trimmed down the dialogue and deleted/combined a number of characters, resulting in a run time of just under 3 hours, including a generous intermission.   The reimagined locale is best seen and understood as symbolic, just as Godspell doesn't really suggest that Jesus and his disciples were late 60's hippies singing show tunes, but rather uses that notion as a storytelling device to enhance the actual dialogue and meaning.  There are echoes of Peter Weiss's Marat/Sade, although I was reminded most of the film King of Hearts, in which inmates similarly adopt various personas based on the clothing they don and the setting in which they find themselves.

Highlighting the theme of insanity leads to some excellent interpretations and implications: Ophelia may have been extremely fragile all along, Claudius may not only be a murderer but also an aggressive,  violent, and dangerous killer, and Hamlet too may have shown some weakness before the play begins. The unanswered question has always been why Prince Hamlet doesn't automatically succeed his father as king, since he is a grown man,  old enough to recall the jester Yorick who died 23 years earlier. Another interesting notion involves a crucial death that happens offstage, and I must admit, never in all the dozens of times I have read, seen, or actually performed in this play, have I realized that there is only one witness to that death, and that witness is questionable and unreliable at best.   

Visual and conceptual wizardry aside, Hamlet succeeds or fails based on its lead actor, and James Costello unquestionably succeeds. While there is plenty of action and a few scary thrills, his soliloquies explore timeless themes and thoughts on the human condition.  Just as Hamlet advises the visiting Players to do, he speaks every word naturally, allowing the audience to understand the tricky 400-year-old vocabulary and sentence structure. Particularly effective are his reactions after seeing the Players perform, and later viewing a vast army marching in the distance; both scenes can seem long and extraneous, but here they become vital, as each represents the passion and vitality that Hamlet longs for.  (Liam MacDougall's excellent performance as the Player King really helps too.) Yet another touch by Richmond allows Costello to channel the words of Hamlet's ghostly father, and while I would have preferred a greater vocal distinction in place of some groaning and grimacing to signify the change, this is still a concept I've always wanted to see attempted on stage.

Visiting artist Richard Sheridan Willis portrays a vigorous and assertive Claudius, while Trey Hobbs is an atypically clever and perceptive Polonius, orchestrating plans to find out what Hamlet is really up to. As Ophelia, Laurie Roberts fully commits to her role, right down to lying crumpled in an emotionally ravaged heap long after the lights have gone up for intermission. She affects an odd accent, something like a Brit imitating a stereotypical American, but the intensity of her performance is remarkable. Melissa Reed is also effective as a coquettish Gertrude; as in previous roles at USC, she uses her petite size to her advantage, literally leaping into the arms of her husband, and later easily being manhandled by her son.

As above, Hamlet-in-an-asylum is certainly an idea that deserved to be tried. At times, characters adopt assorted ticks and twitches and yelps to signify their madness, and when they really get going the effect can be annoying, but as long as they have plenty of lines to keep them busy, it's not too much of a distraction. For me, the creatively updated setting didn't particularly enhance or expand my understanding of the work, but it didn't detract from anything either, and it is certainly a fascinating visual statement.  My only fear is that undergrads and community members who are encountering the play for the first time might not understand that the dialogue contains the actual plot, while the blocking is the interpretation of the actors and director, and the visuals are largely symbolic.  Still, cast, director and creative folks behind the scenes are to be commended for an excellent realization of a difficult but vitally important work.  Hamlet isn't done that often in Columbia, so get thee to Drayton Hall post-haste, as the show only runs through Saturday, April 26. 

See Trustus Theatre's 
See Rock City and Other Destinations For a Warm Evening At the Theatre

Review by August Krickel

A vocal dream team, comprised of some of the best voices in local theatre, combine their talents to take us on a musical tour through famously kitschy vacation spots - Niagara Falls, The Alamo, and the title locale - in See Rock City and Other Destinations. Resembling a collection of short stories set to music, the new show at Trustus Theatre is at times inspiring, at times sentimental, at times edgy, and at times amusing. Sometimes it's all of those at once, and the resulting effect makes for a warm little evening at the theatre.

Eight actors are featured in combinations of one, two and three, in six separate vignettes. Technically all are related thematically, in that all feature someone looking for some type of connection or sense of belonging, and in most cases, someone must make an important and potentially life-changing decision. Which really just means that all six vignettes are about human beings. Three dysfunctional sisters gather to scatter their father's ashes, an elderly man is brought by his granddaughter to the site where he met his late wife, a jittery bride has second thoughts about taking the plunge - literally - and two teens cut school to hit the amusement park. The dialogue, by Adam Mathias, is simple and natural, but his lyrics allow his characters to become more eloquent, expressing their feelings to the accompaniment of Brad Alexander's pretty score.

A couple of stories are fairly traditional, wistful romances where lonely souls find one another; several play like scenes from a Woody Allen or Nora Ephron comedy, and one or two resemble cleverly witty episodes of the Twilight Zone. Chase Nelson has some of the best moments on stage, first as a true believer in search of aliens in the desert near Roswell, NM, then opposite Kendrick Marion as preppies looking for excitement among the attractions at Coney Island. Their three songs together are perhaps the most lyrical, and the most like tunes found in contemporary Broadway hits. Their interaction gets some of the show's biggest laughs, especially in a number where each tries to dominate the other, using just about every profanity imaginable. 

Many of the other songs, expertly performed by musical director Randy Moore on keyboard, Ryan Knott on cello, and Jeremy Polley on guitar, are pleasantly soft pop rock. "Grampy's Song," however, performed by Matthew DeGuire, is reminiscent of an earlier era, with echoes of Lerner and Loewe, or perhaps Schmidt and Jones (composers of stage ballads like "Try to Remember") which is a nice touch, allowing an older character to sing in the musical style of his youth. There is no weak link in the cast, from Kyle Collins as a smarmy tour guide with an agenda, to Linda Posey Collins, Vicky Saye Henderson and Caroline Weidner as the battling siblings, to Kevin Bush as an uncomplicated wanderer who takes the roadside advertisements urging him to "See Rock City" as a command to find meaning in his life.

Chad Henderson's set is minimalistic, but significantly augmented by inventive use of projected scenery from Baxter Engle. Stars over the southwestern desert, glaciers and the icy waters off Alaska, the walls of the historic Alamo, and posters depicting sideshow entertainment are among the many images we see, projected onto two screens and the side of a steep, elevated platform. That platform is put to good use, its top becoming observation decks for visitors to Rock City and Niagara Falls, and then the deck of a cruise ship, with the projected images filling in the remainder below. Director Dewey Scott-Wiley keeps a really lively pace going at all times, and ensures that her cast performs even the most random of throwaway lines, jokes, or lyrics with intensity and conviction.

While the show is intentionally episodic, each component has a clear story arc and a satisfying resolution. Actually, one plot ends ambiguously in the script, but Scott-Wiley offers a potential solution by a simple bit of blocking that creates a nice “Awwww” moment. Nevertheless, there is only so much depth to be found in a short story, which may leave some wishing for something with greater meaning. I often feel cheated when a gimmick is used, like locating the scenes at tourist destinations when in actuality the settings aren’t particularly relevant to the storylines, but here I didn’t mind at all. There's not necessarily any greater message to be found, but just about anyone who has enjoyed previous work by these talented performers will be more than satisfied by this excellently realized musical production.  See Rock City and Other Destinations runs through Sat. April 5th; visit www.trustus.org or call 803-254-9732 for ticket information.











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