Also see Bob's review of Woman Before a Glass
It's hard to know exactly why this Hamlet is so exciting: whether it's the fantastic cast, playing humor against passion against remorse; or the backstage drama itself.
Director Jason Cannon, the enfant terrible of local theatre for the past five or six years, was forced to step into the Prince of Denmark's shoes less than two weeks before opening night. When that night fell, his sensitive face looked pale and clammy. His baby-fat cheeks were worn down from stress to leading-man firmness, and his curling dark hair was a tormented mess. As Jason Cannon, he looked like hell. But as Hamlet, he was quite simply outstanding.
Surrounded by some of the biggest names in town, you might ask, how could he go wrong? Joneal Joplin is the dead king, a brass rubbing of medieval majesty, a commanding presence in a ghostly box of white scrim. Gary Wayne Barker is every inch a usurper king as Claudius, pure silk in his cleverness, bobbing and weaving in his plotting like a criminal mastermind. Lavonne Byers is Gertrude, with barely a dot of duplicity on her noble heart, until she is crushed by guilt on her wifely bed.
But wait (as they say), there's more. Terry Meadows is a very small Polonius, with some very big ideas. His first scene with the king and queen is unexpectedly hilarious, as Claudius and Gertrude flinch with dismay at each of his new, more tedious pronouncements. Sarah Cannon (the beautiful wife of the reluctant star) is a misery-inducing Ophelia, as she hands out bits of herbs in her final mad scene, after so much love has been poured down the drain.
Is this Hamlet mad? Decidedly not. We see the ghost, just as he does, and see the machinations of the court arrayed against him, even as we feel his sense mounting of betrayal. Each famous speech is a marvel of reasoning and dread. Finally, the message of this new Hamlet is that the man of perfect clarity will always seem mad in a world of self-deception. On the other hand, I suppose that all madmen say that, too.
Mr. Joplin returns as the traveling actor, hackles elegantly raised while enduring the younger man's advice on acting. Charles Barron and Daniel Lanier (as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern) make a jittery, comical pair. And Brian Peters is dashing and ferocious as Laertes, bound to avenge his family. His final sword fight with Mr. Cannon was strictly ceremonial on opening night, but I'm sure this Hamlet had a lot of other things on his mind.
Aaron Orion Baker is a kind, loyal and touching Horatio, and his last lines take us outside the play, outside ourselves, and outside the theater, into a vacuum not touching the earth. The rest of the cast is filled out by the very talented Jill Ritter and Luke Lindberg. It's easily the most exciting evening of theater in recent memory in St. Louis.
Mr. Cannon's soliloquies, his rages, his complex relationships and humor are all just as remarkable as we'd hoped to see in Jim Butz, who was forced to drop out of the lead role due to vocal strain. On opening night, however, Mr. Butz was in the audience and described his stand-in as "magnificent." His praise seems right on the mark.
Through April 1, 2007 in the newly renovated (but chilly) Black Cat Theatre. Wednesdays through Saturdays at 8:00 p.m., and Sundays at 4:00 p.m. Two blocks south of Manchester Rd. at 2810 Sutton Blvd., Maplewood, MO. For information, call (314) 535-2216.
Hamlet By William Shakespeare Jason Cannon, Greg Johnston, Co-Producers Directed by Jason Cannon
The Cast Jill Ritter: Bernardo/Player Queen/Attendant/Messenger/2nd Gravedigger Aaron Orion Baker: Horatio Luke Lindbergh: Marcellus/3rd Player/Attendant/Sailor/1st Gravedigger/Osric Joneal Joplin: Ghost/Player King/Priest Gary Wayne Barker: Claudius Lavonne Byers: Gertrude Brian Peters: Laertes Sarah Cannon: Ophelia Terry Meddows: Polonius Jason Cannon: Hamlet Charlie Barron: Rosencrantz Daniel Lanier: Guildenstern
The Crew Assistant Director: Greg Johnston Stage Manager: Patti Walley Dramaturg: Jaime Bast Fight Choreographer: Shaun Sheley Set Design: Daniel Lanier Costume Coordinator: Sarah Cannon Sound Design: Chris Mannelli Lighting Design: Jason Cannon Photography: Jill Ritter Sound Operator: Wes Cannon Light Operator: Jim Dolan Program Design: Roze Wolownik Box Office: Ralph Murphy