Executive-Version Shakespeare

"OK," I put the challenge to our friend Annie as I picked her up on the way to the Milwaukee Ballet's season opener. "Summarize 'Hamlet' in 30 seconds or less so that an -- albeit academically gifted -- 9 year old kid can understand." And kudos to Annie, she did it: "Hamlet is told by his father's ghost to avenge his murder, but the new king is the killer, so that makes it hard to do." And Stella wrapped it up herself, "I told [my writing teacher] I was going tongith and she said, 'Everybody dies.' "

Then we read the ballet sypnosis and we all agreed, Wow. This is "Book 14 of 'A Series of Unfortunate Events."

Then, two minutes into the show, with its brushed steel and glass-like sets, those Armani suits everybody's heard about from the get-go, and the urbane feel of it all, and I've decided we were watching -- both in style and in length -- "Hamlet -- The Executive Version." All the backstabbing, madness, trust-no-one-not-even-your-own-mind, could have been filmed as the sequel to Wall Street, but summarized for quick review by CXO types who don't have time for the verbose text version.

New guy Patrick Howell as Hamlet sets the tone from the get-go: he's sitting on what eventually becomes his grave, staring at the audience in confusion and bewilderment, and his debut with this company caught my attention. He has a great and varied approach to using his body to convey inner conflict -- it's as though you could see his brain fighting with his muscles on what he wanted them to do as opposed to what they should do, and like his character-- this conflict is pulling him in all sorts of directions, not knowing who he can trust. (Uh, nobody, you ol Melancholy Dane, the whole freakin family is NUTS). But so it goes in New York Metropolis, USA, where this seems to have been set. Right down to funky street performers set up to suggest Hamlet's theory about how his father really went down, all the way to Old Hamlet the Elder himself, looking a bit like a weary Bill Clinton on his way to his office in Harlem.

I was surprised at how much of the Phillip Glass score I specifically recognized, as opposed to thinking, "Yeah, that sounds like something Phillip Glass would write." I'm not sure if some of it was used to recall context (but then again, who would put all this together except huge fans of both Glass and popular culture.) However, I found myself several times thinking to myself, "I've heard this. Where else was this music used?" The times when I was able to answer that question were the times I wondered if it was intentional. The most notable was with the music used in the scene where Ophelia shows Hamlet his torn up love letters, and makes a feeble attempt to convince Hamlet that she's faking and is torn on what she's feeling inside. Hamlet chooses to believe the surface lie. It's the same music used in the chilling scene in The Truman Show where Truman's "best friend" is trying to convince Truman that he's NOT faking, and is torn on what he's feeling inside. But Truman chooses to believe the surface lie. This was one of a few times I had to wonder if the particular music was chosen not only for its evocative mood, but for the referential value as well.

Personal and audience favorite Luz San Miguel as Ophelia almost steals the show from new guy Howell during her madness and death scene, which is not only choreographed wonderfully, but was staged chillingly as well. They used a silk screen to provide a moire effect softening other dancers' simulating Opheilia's thoughts in a dream state, while she physically went through her descent into psychological hell, attacking a pool of water at the front of the stage. The screen then is used effectively to suggest Ophelia's watery grave, and made the perfect point to end act one and give us a chance to exhale during the intermission.

Read the review this morning from Strini, he didn't like it. Said it was too choppy, and he's got a point there, but I thought Act one flowed very well and told the story with a great moderinistic twist. I do have to agree with Strini's complaint that it might not have seemed the dancers had quite settled into their parts. Specifically, there were portions where Hamlet or Ophelia were being followed around by people mimicking their moves (Strini didn't get the point of that -- I intrepreted it as the conflicting inner thoughts personified as other characters and I thought was effective) that I think needed a bit more polish. When they were mimicking the moves in a musical round, it looked great and I enjoyed it. When they would do it in unison, however, it revealed that it needed some more work. If you're going to do a unison dance -- especially one in a production that so fashionably screams "NYC" -- it really calls for a precision befitting Radio City Music Hall, and that wasn't always there. My other complaint was the Act II was short, and somewhat disjointed. Act I laid down the characters, their conflicts, and built a tension. Act II seemd to wrap it up much too quickly. I know that to cut down Shakespeare's orginal 4-hour script choreographer Stephen Mills had to delete a few characters and their plotlines, but maybe he should have left Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in the plot -- I think they would have beefed up, and perhaps sewn together, Act II, even if, as Stella's teacher warned her, they would just be two more people who end up dead.

But overall, I enjoyed it. It was cool and hip, but still substantial because they're dealing with great old story that stands the test of time. In fact, that's been the strength of the Milwaukee Ballet as of late: they're taking chances, they're approaching cool and hip, and like anybody who takes chances, yeah, they're going to trip once in a while, and I'm fine with that. It's the difference between good and exciting, and I prefer exciting. While there's plenty of North Shore Nancies that would be happy if all they did were safe little Balanchine rehashes all seasons long, what's bringing in me -- and I suspect many others in my demographic who appreciate classical arts but are intrigued by taking the next step -- in are edgy, riskier ventures such as this. For the traditionalists, next up is the good ol' Nutcracker -- which has become a comfortable tradition with Stella and me, but then Shakespeare comes back, followed by the winner of last year's Genesis Competition, so this season looks to be a good cross section of classical dance.

Other Friday random ramblings:

  • We continue on with the Anglo weekend, as Robyn Hitchcock is at Shank Hall tonght. Just got email from WMSE -- Hitchcock's going to be on live for the pledge drive today (on Buzz's show?!?) and reminds me I need to decide during whose show are we going to call in our annual donation? I know I want the WMSE Cookbook -- and BTW -- if you pledge quickly and are one of the first to report that you want to take her up on this offer, artist-Boulevard Ensemble Executive Director and general woman-about-town Chris Ward has offered to make you one of her recipies from it! But we usually contribute more than the minimum $30/$40 to get a T-Shirt or cookbook. It's not a matter of if, or even how much, we'll contribute. And we're not doing it just for the cool premium gift we'll select, but at the same time, since we get one anyway, we want to pick carefully!

  • I have had it up to here with Microsoft. That wonky Outlook bug that can't undetstand that we held out Daylight Savings Time for another week is wreaking havoc on my calendar, which syncs with my Palm Treo. It's already resulted in my entries for the Ballet, Hitchcock, and tomorrow's Bucks game to look like they go over two days. Daily appointments are falling off, and fortunately I didn't have a lot this week and the ones I did were regular recurring meetings where I had (leftover from last spring's debacle) "NO REALLY, THIS MEETING IS AT 10 AM CENTRAL TIME, HONEST" in the subject line, safely away from the bug's havoc-wreaking reach. I know better than to blame my company's exchange administrator for this, but I know that not everybody knows this isn't a local issue, but an "anybody who uses Microsoft and lives in the continental United States" issue. And I also know that maybe I shouldn't be so tethered to my calendar and subsequently my Treo that such a thing ruins my life. But, you, dear Blog Readers, have often commented to me (usually privately) that you don't know how I manage such a busy life, and really, its about being organized and having good tools to do so. But if your tools fail you, what do you do after you've already sent your overworked exchange administrator a box of Crawford's Molasses Cookies? I'm telling you, all you people at my office, all you "We're a Microsoft Shop and you Mac and Linux Users Are a Pain In Our Keyster" admin types. I'm so Done with you teasing me with your "You're a Mac user at home! Traitor! You've gone to the dark side" crap. Hey, guess what? It works. I've never been blue screened. My appointments are all fine on my Mac, thank you. Not to say that Apple doesn't have its issues, but dammit, basic stuff like Daylight Savings Time works. So, Microsoft Certified System Administrators, I'll cut you a deal. I won't blame you for this stupid wonky bug that's ruining my life at work (and I suspect, yours too to a greater extent), and you don't give me any crap for being a Mac user at home, where I enjoy the ability to relax at my computer. Hotay?

  • Mark your calendars, honeys, my band Loblolly is booked for one of our rare appearances, this time, Saturday 24 at the Stonefly. We're opening for Guido's Racecar -- a bnad I've been wanting to get out and see for a long time anyway -- and Dr Chow's Love Medicine. No, we didn't get this gig because I'm married to the rhythm guitarist in Dr Chow. Guido's Racecar simultaneiouly invited us and Chow to fill the bill. And if I do say so myself, it’s a great bill and you should make plans. Look at it this way: you will have had your fill of Thanksgiving dinner and your straight up family. The next day, if you don't work in retail (and will be ready to kill sombody by the evening) you will want to stay home and just not deal with all the "I MUST HAVE A NEW DVD PLAER FROM WALMART AND I'LL WAKE UP AT SOME UNGODLY HOUR TO GET THIS" psychos on the roads ruining a potentially otherwise lovely day off work. But by Saturday of that long weekend, you will need to get out of the house. You will need somebody to bring you back underground, you will need to hear psychedelic, americanic, punked out garagey bluesy surfey rock and roll cacophony, and we three bands are just the delinquents to do it!


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