The new St. Petersburg Shakespeare Company is presenting Hamlet at Eckerd College's Bininger Theater, and though the production isn't an impressive one, it does offer some glimmers of what this long-needed organization may, in time, become.
More precisely, it offers Betty-Jane Parks as Ophelia, Ginger King as Gertrude and Nicholas J. White as Laertes. All three of these fine actors make perfect sense of their challenging roles. Parks, for example, solves the problem of Ophelia's eventual madness by playing the character as mentally weak even on a good day. King's Gertrude answers the inevitable questions about her hasty remarriage by showing herself utterly delighted with Claudius, and not for a moment nostalgic for her first husband. And Laertes comes through as an intrepid anti-Hamlet, as robust and self-confident as his opposite is (or should be) introverted and uncertain. Whenever these actors are on stage, we enjoy a Shakespeare studied closely, interpreted coherently and as humanly authentic as anything you'll see anywhere. If SPSC can present more performances of this caliber, there's no end to the possibilities.
But these three actors are almost alone in their excellence. True, a few of their colleagues are almost credible: Michael DeMouchel might make a potent King Claudius if he didn't seem so monotonously somber from first moment to last (and he's also hard to hear), and Robert Colwell as Polonius is almost believable, though he doesn't ever seem to have really won the king's, or Laertes' confidence. Ian Gabriel Gonzalez-Muentener is a likable if bland Horatio, and Levi Landry and Thomas Massey are a tolerable Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. As to the very minor parts, most of the SPSC actors are just miscast. This is no more acceptable in a drama than in a violin concerto: you don't have to be a soloist to mar a performance.
And then there's Prince Hamlet. Benjamin Boucvalt, a student at the FSU/Asolo Conservatory in Sarasota, plays him vibrantly and heroically — which is to say, all wrong. First, Hamlet should seem depressed. He tells us he's suicidal in his opening soliloquy — "Oh that this too too solid flesh would melt" — explains further to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern — "I have of late and wherefore I know not lost all my mirth" — and clinches the argument in the "To be or not to be" speech: "To die, to sleep — no more — and by a sleep to say we end the heartache, and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to." But Boucvalt plays the part forcefully, vividly, as if high on adrenalin.
Hamlet's feigned madness is another problem. Upon hearing from his father's ghost that Claudius was his killer, Hamlet tells his friends that from here on he'll "put an antic disposition on" — that is, act insane. The vow raises many questions about Hamlet's state of mind: If his intent is to be better placed to kill Claudius, won't lunacy make him seem more, and not less dangerous? Or is he not pretending? Is the mission the ghost has set for him so imponderable that it's driven him crazy? Unfortunately, Boucvalt in this production answers none of these questions. He never appears specially unbalanced, so the whole mystery gets lost.
In fact, the only extended period during which Boucvalt is convincing is in the last scenes of the play, when his miraculous return to Denmark has convinced him that there's "special providence in the fall of a sparrow." Of course, this is too late to salvage the role or the production. But the coherence of these last scenes, coupled with a terrifically realistic fencing match (choreographed by Chris Fields), makes the end of the play more satisfying than the start. Since the production takes nearly three hours, though, this is a long time to wait.
Richard Miller directs, and though he's fine at moving bodies around a stage, one wishes he had an interpretation of this perplexing drama. Jonathan Robben's two-level set on the wide and deep Bininger stage (which fortunately boasts a trap door for the gravedigger scene) is abstract and utilitarian, and Rebeka Sweet's period costumes are easy on the eyes. The Bininger tends to swallow up dialogue, but this is a problem that can be addressed easily enough. The other difficulties are more troubling.
In any case, welcome to the SPSC. Don't be put off by small crowds at first, or, for that matter, by carping critics: other companies have started off shakily, and evolved into something wonderful. This Hamlet is problematic, but the future's unwritten. Show us what you can do.