Michael Cumpsty in Hamlet
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Michael Cumpsty in Hamlet
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Quick: What's the name of the song that the strippers sing in the second act of Gypsy? Is it "You Gotta Get a Gimmick," as it's called on the original cast album, or "You Gotta Have a Gimmick," as it's labeled on Jerome Robbins' Broadway? Whichever is the case, Brian Kulick, the artistic director of the Classic Stage Company, must believe the axiom. He has directed Hamlet for his company and has had stapled to each audience member's ticket a piece of paper that reads, "As you enter the theatre, please walk to the center of the stage, where you will stand for approximately five minutes. An usher will then direct you to your seat."

The moment I saunter onto the stage and see the long dining room table with place settings and bottles of wine, I get it: We're supposed to be guests at the wedding of Claudius and Gertrude. Okay. Now, what'll I do while waiting? I find myself thinking of the other Hamlets I've seen, dating all the way back to Richard Burton in 1964. Did you know that Columbia records not only recorded the entire play but also released the famous "To Be or Not to Be" soliloquy as a 45 rpm record? It was in the jukebox at the Ginger Man restaurant for years. Speaking of that soliloquy, isn't it interesting how many titles of properties have been taken from it? There are movies titled To Be or Not to Be and Outrageous Fortune; a 2003 TV series titled Slings and Arrows; the 1988 ballet Sea of Troubles; the 1945 Ivor Novello operetta Perchance to Dream, which racked up a then-startling 1,022-performance run in London; and Tom Stoppard's 1979 play Undiscovered Country. I'll bet there are plenty more, too.

I also recall the first time I ever read Hamlet, in the autumn of 1966. By that point, I was following Broadway with scrupulous care and was looking forward to the rash of fall openings: Edward Albee's A Delicate Balance, Woody Allen's Don't Drink the Water, and a play by Michael Stewart (who'd written the books for Bye Bye Birdie, Carnival, and Hello, Dolly!) called He to Hecuba. So you can imagine my astonishment, while reading Hamlet, to find in the middle of Act II, Scene Two the line, "What's Hecuba to him, or he to Hecuba?" Indeed, Stewart's play did deal with Hamlet; it centered on the troupe of actors whom the prince engages to stage The Murder of Gonzago. That's why Stewart eventually retitled the show Those That Play the Clowns. But those clowns didn't play long -- only four performances. That didn't make me think it stunk; I just assumed that it wasn't a sufficiently commercial property for Broadway. Years later, I found a script of it at, fittingly enough, Shakespeare & Company on Lower Broadway, and I licked my lips in anticipation. Alas, it really was bad.

As I look at my CSC program, I'm pleased to see that Kulick has given William Shakespeare a bio. How many theaters think to do this? Suddenly, I wonder what Shakespeare's bio would have been like at the premiere of Hamlet in 1600, had they printed such things then. "The Stratford-on-Avon native, born not far from the Forest of Arden -- which he commemorated in his last year's hit, As You Like It -- is no stranger to the Globe stage. In the last 10 years, he's shown himself to be England's most promising playwright, going easily from comedy (The Taming of the Shrew, Two Gentlemen of Verona) to history (three plays on Henry VI, one each on Richard II and Richard III), and tragedies (including the controversial Titus Andronicus). Just last season, he penned one in each genre, writing the spirited Henry V and the harrowing Julius Caesar in addition to the riotous As You Like It. Five years ago, it was Romeo and Juliet that put this former law clerk, schoolteacher, and scrivener on the theatrical map to stay. Other successes have included A Midsummer-Night's Dream and The Merry Wives of Windsor. (Thanks for the idea, Your Majesty!) He's now working on a comedy, as yet untitled, in which two siblings are shipwrecked. Love to Susanna, Judith, and the Dark Lady."

The lights at the Classic Stage Company suddenly snap off, the show starts, and I realize that we can't be guests at the wedding for we're now watching Marcellus, Bernardo, and Horatio meet the ghost of King Hamlet romping on the seats we'll take in a few minutes. Then the men come onto the stage and plow right through us to follow that ghost, not acknowledging our presence at all. I'm trying to figure out what this means, but soon the scene is over and we're into the time-consuming ritual of getting everyone into his seat, which derails the play's momentum. Finally, we see the wedding to which we'd been disinvited, but I'm thinking ahead to the scene in which Hamlet's taken to meet the ghost. Are we going to have to get up on stage again? No, Kulick spares us that; but if there's a point to his opening, I don't know what it is.

As it turns out, the acting in the CSC production is fine with the exception of Robert Dorfman as Claudius, for the way Kulick has directed him suggests a combination of Zaza in La Cage aux Folles and Inspector Clouseau. Why would Gertrude ever fall in love with a jerk like this? For me, the evening's biggest payoff comes when Hamlet emerges with a can of spray paint and grafittis the back wall of the set, and the intoxicating smell of the paint envelops the house. Now I understand: Kulick thought of having us wait on stage after he'd spent one too many rehearsals sniffing spray paint!

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[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at pfilichia@theatermania.com]