William Shakespeare was a great friend to actors; not only did he provide employment through his words, he also prescribed how to play their parts through his dialogue. Take the line, “How now Horatio, you tremble and look pale”; one might reasonably presume the character is indeed trembling. He has after all just seen a ghost. Horatio replies to the speaker that the sight of the ghost, “harrows me with fear.”
However in the current production of “Hamlet” at the Illinois Shakespeare Festival in Bloomington this moment, along with too many others, was played on opening night in a most cursory, generalized manner. There seemed a disconnect between what I saw and what I heard throughout the production. Shakespeare, remember always a friend to actors, gave them advice on how to perform when he has Hamlet advise the tragedians from the city on their art: “Suit the action to the word, the word to the action.” Directors would be as good a friend if they were to follow the playwright’s advice, but it seems many contemporary directors are more interested in putting their spin on the old words.
The current fashion is to do “innovative” productions, which usually mean changing the setting (time and place) and costume plot.
Peter Brook did “A Mid Summer’s Night Dream” in a circus setting with trapeze. Richard Burton did a modern dress “Hamlet,” and there are many more examples to the point that “innovation” is the rule and period productions are the exception. The great Shakespearean actor, Hawaiian born (Kenyan if you follow Donald Trump’s cartography) Randall Duk Kim always played in period and without cuts. He also spent many rehearsals at the table going over the text with the actors to help them bring the words to life. His productions at the American Players Theatre in Spring Green, Wis., were among the best I have seen. It may seem old fashioned but in my opinion Shakespeare was the innovator and current practitioners would do better to concentrate on performance.
Cornstock’s second production of the summer was “Cheaper By The Dozen” adapted from the book by Christopher Sergel who also did the adaptation of “To Kill a Mockingbird” which was produced at Peoria Players this past season. Both productions featured the talented Charles Brown in leading roles. Mr. Sergel was the head of the Dramatic Publishing Co. in New York, and to judge from these two scripts not a very good playwright. Although in all fairness it is daunting to adapt from the narrative form to the dramatic. Both plays suffer from the presence of a narrator(s) remembering the past which in the theater is usually deadly. Exposition is considered among the most difficult conventions for actors to deliver because of the inherent lack of dramatic action. There are many show biz jokes about “death by exposition,” and now I think I know what the jokes are about.