LOU'S VIEWS: Alas, poor patrons

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Lou Harry

If intent were all that mattered, I would be writing in praise of Hoosier Bard’s production of “Young Hamlet”—the earliest known draft of Shakespeare’s tragedy.

The new company, built from a core of IUPUI scholars, aims to “make classic plays new and exciting for 21st century audiences.” An ambitious idea. Truth is, we don’t really have a theater here in central Indiana with a consistent drive to breathe life into plays of yesteryear. Although, to be fair, others—including the Indiana Repertory Theatre and Butler University Theatre—cycle Shakespeare’s work onto their stages on a reasonably regular basis. (FYI: Butler is offering “As You Like It” in early March.) Plus, there’s the annual summer production from Heartland Actors Repertory Theatre at White River State Park, the audience for which is growing.

In a pre-show speech offered before the Feb. 11 performance of “Young Hamlet” at the IndyFringe Building, Gary Taylor, general editor of The New Oxford Shakespeare and a driving force in Hoosier Bard, stated additional ambitious goals for the company. He wants Hoosier Bard to be a theater that speaks to young people. He sees it as a means of testing the theories of scholars with shows that aren’t necessarily “safe.” And he wants to do shows on the scale intended by the author, labeling reduced shows—such as the touring Actors from the London Stage’s five-actor versions—as “not Shakespeare.”

“Really doing Shakespeare,” said Taylor, “means a large cast” since Shakespeare created entire social worlds.

But how much should intentions play a part when the execution

is below even the level expected of amateur companies? And what to make of the grueling 2-1/2 hours that followed that noble speech?

I’ve seen a “Hamlet” with a nude Polonius. I’ve seen “The Tempest” where kitchen utensils fell out of the sky. I’ve seen “Taming of the Shrew” in the old west, “Julius Caesar” in a South American dictatorship, and various Shakespeare works turned into the equivalent of Classics Illustrated comics by severely truncated running times. But I’ve never seen a Shakespeare play as deadly dull as “Young Hamlet”—one with as many actors falling this far short of the skills required.

In a nutshell, “Young Hamlet” is “Hamlet” with some name and word changes, a bit more sympathy toward Gertrude, a younger prince who behaves even worse in his feigned madness, and no off-stage pirate ship action that you probably forgot was even in the show.

Lifelessly staged, inconsistently accented, awkwardly lit and without regard for coherent motivations, “Young Hamlet” (which ran Feb. 4-12 and received polite notices elsewhere) wasn’t just a failed experiment. It was an effort to create something so beyond the reach of its creators that I’m tempted to question their hubris.

It’s akin to your deciding to stage a grand opera in your office break room with folks from the IT department providing the music and the HR crew singing leads. Ambitious: yes. Chance of actually being artistically satisfying: nil.

I suppose there may be some interest in the show among scholars, but that aim would have been better served by a script-in-hand reading with actors that weren’t in desperate need of the services of Geoffrey Rush’s character from “The King’s Speech.” Only Lauren Briggeman, as Horatio, emerged relatively unscathed. The rest, by no fault of their own, were just in over their heads.

As for the desire to be more “youthful,” Hoosier Bard’s “Young Hamlet” seemed no more appealing to teens and twentysomethings than the IRT’s “Romeo and Juliet” last year or Butler’s staged-in-the-dirt “Hamlet” from a few seasons back.

I strongly believe in both the edification and the entertainment to be found in the works of Shakespeare. I’m second to none in my desire to see more quality Shakespeare in Indy.

But the key word there is quality.

Seeing “Hairspray” (at Beef & Boards Dinner Theatre through March 27), I was again amazed at the musical equivalent of a series of three-point shots landed right at the top of the game by the composer/lyricist team of March Shaiman and Scott Wittman.

First they swish with a charming, fun, here-I-am song, “Good Morning Baltimore,” introducing us to their optimistic teen heroine. Then, swish, they switch up and sink another with “The Nicest Kids in Town,” establishing the world of the TV studio and its teen dance show.

Then, boom, it’s the delightful “Mama, I’m a Big Girl Now,” with three sets of mothers/daughters and their respective generation gaps. And then, already in musical theater heaven, we get “I Can Hear the Bells,” one of the most fun, character-specific love songs in recent musical theater.

No musical, of course, can sustain that for the whole game. But Shaiman and Wittman make a remarkable go of it. And Beef & Boards offers a respectable production that misses some of the big laughs but nails the sweetness. I particularly liked the way Jill Sullivan’s Tracy always seemed to be hungry to learn the dance moves of those around her by watching their feet.

Unfortunately, Carly Vernon was made to play sidekick Penny Pingleton as more of a stereotypical nerd than an original goofball—which, in addition to being less interesting, made it difficult to believe the interest the liquid-legged Seaweed of Jarvis B. Manning Jr. developed in her.

For Ashley Brown’s pops program with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, Jack Everly once again put together an entertaining program that showed off both the musicians and their talented guest.

I caught the truncated Friday afternoon version of the show (which ran Feb. 11-13) and was pleased that some initial awkward banter from Brown and a few good enough attempts to show other sides to her (“La Jazz Hot” from “Victor/Victoria,” for instance), soon gave way to tunes that better played to her many strengths.

“Feed the Birds,” from “Mary Poppins” showed clearly what time spent with a song can do to its clarity and richness (Brown played the lead on Broadway). A Disney medley followed. It had a fun “name-that-tune” quality, with Brown adept at everything from “Part of Your World” to “When You Wish Upon a Star.” It was a reminder of the great songs that no longer seem to have a place on the pre-teen-focused RadioDisney.

Brown, who had her professional orchestra debut with the ISO in 2005 as the female singer on a “Broadway Leading Men” program, was supported by three gents who brought their talents to a duet medley, including “People Will Say We’re in Love,” “Someone to Watch Over Me,” and “My Heart is So Full of You” (oh, to hear the ISO do the entire “Most Happy Fella” score—with Brown singing the female lead).

Ending the set with “Defying Gravity” was an odd move, given that the song’s “owner,” Idina Menzel, will be appearing with the ISO next month and, no doubt, doing the same song. Brown delivered it well, though, and was charmingly herself for a weekend-appropriate encore of “My Funny Valentine” sung to her dog who, yes, opened his mouth to speak at just the right time.•


This column appears weekly. Send information on upcoming arts and entertainment events to lharry@ibj.com. Twitter: IBJArts and follow Lou Harry’s A&E blog at www.ibj.com/arts.


  • thanks
    Thanks for the fact-check, Alison.
  • Tempest in a teapot
    Silly people. Nut one thing... I helped run the house as a volunteer. I have no personal relationship with the company-- but I was there every night and there were no shows where half the audience left at intermission. There were a couple people here and there--as in most shows but the majority of the audience stayed and then 20 or so stayed every night for the very good talk-backs. I just wanted to set the record straight about that :).
    • Mubarak and Gaddafi? Seriously?
      I can't believe that someone who is politely sharing and discussing their opinion about a play is being compared to Mubarak and Gaddafi. Mubarak would arrest people and torture them if they disagreed with him. Gaddafi has committed acts of terrorism and is currently murdering Libyans for expressing their views. The fact that Mr. Harry has this comment section that allows everyone to post their thoughts, shows me that he supports the right for everyone to express their views. I think the person who made that accusation needs a reality check, or at the very least to take some classes on history and current events
    • Poor Patron
      I must agree with Mr. Harry. I attended the show and his comments were accurate - just about all of them. I was embarrassed for the actors and their students/families/friends. The night I went, almost half of the audience left at intermission. I wanted to, but didn't have the guts. Everyone has their own opinions. I certainly don't agree with what Mr. Harry says on a daily basis, but on this, he certainly saw what I saw. A critic is just that - and I admire him more for actually critiquing the show than just patting its head and talking nice about it as some others tend to do.
    • Shout down?
      "Shout down"?

      Wow - that's an overstatement...

      Sensitive much?
    • peace
      Again: I'm glad you and others enjoyed the production. I had and have no intention of trying to change your opinion.
      When specific questions are asked--as they were from the posters here--I felt they deserved responses. To me, that's not shouting down. It's having a conversation.
      Whatever the case, I hope that you and the other posters continue to experience the live arts in Indy and beyond. And that others continue to add perspectives to this and other reviews.
    • Hubris
      OK, I exaggerated. The best actor in Heartland's Verona was better than the worst actor in Young Hamlet. Satisfied?
      I guess I exaggerated because I was exasperated. I resent the way you dismiss everything that I and your other readers say. You remind me of Mubarek and Ghadafi, trying to shout down all the young people protesting your old-fashioned views, trying to discredit us, claiming that there's some kind of secret conspiracy ("friends-of-the-cast"). Can't you just admit that you might possibly be wrong? and a lot of other people might be right? that a bunch of us saw something new and exciting and relevant to our lives?
      But I don't think there's any point arguing with you. I just know never to trust your judgment of what's good theatre and what is not.
    • Hubris
      OK, I exaggerated. The best actor in Heartland's Verona was better than the worst actor in Young Hamlet. Satisfied?
      I guess I exaggerated because I was exasperated. I resent the way you dismiss everything that I and your other readers say. You remind me of Mubarek and Ghadafi, trying to shout down all the young people protesting your old-fashioned views, trying to discredit us, claiming that there's some kind of secret conspiracy ("friends-of-the-cast"). Can't you just admit that you might possibly be wrong? and a lot of other people might be right? that a bunch of us saw something new and exciting and relevant to our lives?
      But I don't think there's any point arguing with you. I just know never to trust your judgment of what's good theatre and what is not.
    • answers
      As I said to the others, I'm glad you enjoyed the production.
      In response to your questions:
      --"If it were just relatives and friends of the cast, why doesn't every show at the Fringe attract audiences like that?" Well, most Fringe Building shows don't have gigantic casts made up mostly of students and teachers from a local college--or have ticket prices this low ($8 for students) so that the college-agers can actually go. That being said, I'm sure there were some in the audience not connected to the cast and crew. But the cast size certainly impacted ticket sales. It's why community theaters put armies of orphans in 'Annie.'
      --"You must be out of your mind to prefer those crappy Butler shows. Did you see their boring Merchant of Venice last year?" As far as I know, I am in reasonably sound mental health. And, no, I didn't see 'Merchant.' And, for the record, I don't love everything that Butler does. I approach each production the same way that I approached 'Young Hamlet.'
      -"By 'quality' I think you just mean 'money'." Nope, I actually meant quality. I've been very critical of high budget shows and very positive about low-budgeters. It's the work, not the coin.
      --"Everyone was better than ANYone in that lame Heartland 'Two Gentleman.'" With that statement, you lost credibility. While hardly a world-class production, there were some fine actors in that show. Seriously think about the worst performers in 'Young Hamlet" and put them up against a Ryan Artzberger. No comparison.
      • who is the one with hubris?
        From what I read and heard from other people I know (not members of the cast, or their relatives), this show sold out for five performances in a row, they had to add an extra performance. I was one of the people turned away on Saturday, which had never happened to me before, so I went back on Sunday and was blown away. If it were just relatives and friends of the cast, why doesn't every show at the Fringe attract audiences like that? You must be out of your mind to prefer those crappy Butler shows. Did you see their boring Merchant of Venice last year? Enough to turn anyone off Shakespeare for life. By "quality" I think you just mean "money". Not every actor in the show was perfect, but Hamlet and Ophelia and Horatio and Gertrude were really impressive, and everyone was better than ANYone in that lame Heartland Two Gentleman. (I must admit I left halfway through that. Butler doesn't give you an intermission, so I couldn't leave, but I'm never going back there....)
      • Bard
        I'm truly glad that the five of you liked "Hoosier Bard" far more than I did. It seems to me--as with most small theater--that the crowd largely consisted of friends, family, coworkers and students connected to the cast and crew (and bravo to those for supporting the work). I'll give you the benefit of the doubt, though, and assume you went in with an open heart and mind and without a bias in favor of whatever your friends, family, coworkers and or students were presenting.
        To respond to specifics comments:
        George: One definition of quality, for me, is "Work that is likely to stand up without an audience full of friends, family, coworkers, and coworkers of the cast and crew."
        Max: The "maybe you have to be young to get it" might apply to a show by the Wiggles, but not to quality drama. (The same is often said of "Spring Awakening," which I saw and appreciated again last night.)
        Charles: Of course we aren't gods. Nobody that I know of claimed we were. We are, ideally, passionate advocates for excellence who are blessed to be in a place where we can wrestle with our arts experiences, turn them into prose, and share them with an active, interested readership.
        Ryan: Nope. Wasn't asleep. Would have told readers if I was.
        Mary: Nope. I was there. And based on post-show conversation, I wasn't alone in my thoughts on the work. And, even if I was alone, I'd still share those same thoughts. It's what I do.
        Thanks for reading IBJ and I look forward to your feedback on future stories. Remember, too, that every Monday I post a You-review-it blog at www.ibj.com/arts. I'd love for all of you to make it a habit of letting me (and IBJ readers) know your thoughts on other A&E you've seen.
        Be well,
        • Just not true
          Define "quality": an essential or distinguishing characteristic of someone or something that speaks through their work ( like Young Hamlet cast and crew) ..
          "The quality of mercy is not strained" -- Shakespeare.
        • Hamlet
          I saw Tom Cardwell deliver a Hamlet that challenged the best I've ever seen--the Butler Hamlet totally sucked. I really loved this play--I want more from Hoosier Bard. Maybe you have to be young to get it. Maybe you can't be jaded by the establishment. Maybe you have to see the play!
        • Hear! Hear!
          I was with Ryan--and I couldn't agree more. The scene with Ophelia--the Ghost--oh man. Critics are not gods.
        • Indy's best.
          What I saw:
          A great young Hamlet...
          An amazing Ofelia...
          An audience that was thoroughly engaged..
          A sell-out crowd--at the Fringe--40+ people turned away the night I went.
          It was just what Indy needed -- and needs!
          Were you asleep?
          a new theatre lover!
        • Young Hamlet
          I think I must have seen a different play. I thought it was exciting, young, and oh-so-wonderful. The audience was young too, No one fell asleep (like in every other play I've seen in my 26 years). No one left. and the music was amazing. Maybe you were someplace else Mr. Harry!

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