My Favorite Performances, 2011

Matthew Amendt – Hamlet. The Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival celebrated its 25th anniversary with its first-ever presentation of this most famous of plays, with a kinetic, explosive production directed by Terrence O’Brien. Stripped of almost all trappings, this production was among the most compelling I have ever seen, and it was mostly due to Mr. Amendt’s compelling performance as the young Prince of Denmark. Amendt was riveting from start to finish, a towering achievement especially when you consider that he was sharing the stage with some the Festival’s best repertory players. His choices were big and bold, and made Hamlet something he rarely is: sympathetic. I don’t think I have ever heard so rapt an audience at any other Shakespeare performance I’ve attended.

Nina Arianda – Born Yesterday. I have yet to see Ms. Arianda’s breakout performance in Venus in Fur, but will rectify that this February when that show reopens at the Lyceum Theatre, but I am beyond thrilled I got to witness this star-on-the-rise reinvent a classic role (Billie Dawn, made famous by Judy Holliday on stage and to Oscar-winning effect on film). The Kanin classic, which also starred Jim Belushi and Robert Sean Leonard, doesn’t really take off until Billie Dawn makes her entrance. From that point to the end of the play, it was impossible to look at anyone other than Ms. Arianda, a luminous, effervescent vision on or offstage. I ran out of superlatives with which to rave her performance last spring. Nina Arianda is destined for stardom, not unlike Ms. Holliday, and any chance you have to see her live onstage, you need to run, not walk.

Danny Burstein – Follies. I have been a fan of Follies for years, and usually the bulk of attention gets lavished on the leading ladies. However, in this Broadway revival imported from the Kennedy Center, Mr. Burstein makes waves as Buddy Plummer, the sad-sack salesman married to neurotic-bordering-on-psychotic Sally. Behind the smile is immense pain, expressed brilliantly in “The Right Girl” and “The God-Why-Don’t-You-Love-Me Blues.” In short, in a show that features some of the best songs ever heard in a musical, it is Mr. Burstein who rips your heart out. He is a Broadway treasure and this performance is the latest in a line of personal triumphs.

Tyne Daly – Master Class. After seeing Tyne Daly’s most recent cabaret at Feinstein’s and her various characters in Love, Loss and What I Wore, I knew when I heard that Ms. Daly would be cast against type as the great opera diva Maria Callas, it was going to be a must-see performance. I was right; Ms. Daly transformed herself in look and appearance, creating a galvanizing performance that was funny, bold and fearless. As much as I laughed at the humor in Terrence McNally’s play (a highly fictionalized variation on the famed master classes Ms. Callas gave at Juilliard in the ’70s), it was the two aria-like monologues in which Daly as Callas stepped out of the classroom and into her memory. It was rapturous, and the stuff of great theatre. If you missed it here, you can catch Tyne Daly in Master Class in the West End this winter.

Jan Maxwell – Follies. Over the past few months, I have had the immense joy of seeing the Broadway revival of Follies several times including its first preview, opening night among others. Each time, Maxwell’s performance as Phyllis Rogers Stone has grown only more and more fascinating and deeper. From small nuances, like her absolute joy in the Mirror Number, or the way she clutches herself when Young Phyllis says she wants a child in the Loveland transition to the bigger moments like her killer “Could I Leave You?” and a showstopping display of confidence and elan in “The Story of Lucy and Jessie,” Ms. Maxwell is just staggering.

Jason O’Connell – Around the World in 80 Days. Mr. O’Connell has proven with past performances that he is one of the most versatile actors working at the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival. This year, he had the opportunity to express the dynamic nature of his range with a riveting portrayal of Claudius in the HVSF Hamlet, but it was his comic tour de force in this delightful farce that really stood out to me as one of the freshest, funniest turns onstage this year. In a variety of roles, Mr. O’Connell was unafraid to go the extra distance for the play and it worked like gang-busters; his fully-committed performance resulted in some of the largest laughs I’ve had all year.

Mark Rylance. Jerusalem. Every once in a while a performance comes along that just wipes me out. The sheer physicality, emotional breadth and staggering fall of Johnny “Rooster” Byron in Jez Butterfield’s new play was nothing short of extroardinary, and it seems almost impossible to think that another actor could do what Mark Rylance did onstage at the Music Box Theatre. I practically had to be carried out of the theatre when it was done, I was so emotionally spent. In a good way. Rylance is a contemporary genius and continually surprises audiences with his chameleon-like way of going from role to role.

Leigh Williams – The Life and Death of King John. One of the unexpected surprises of my theatergoing this year was this fascinating adaptation of one of Shakespeare’s more problematic plays. But in the hands of the New York Shakespeare Exchange, and director Ross William, King John was presented with a contemporary twist that fused Shakespeare with the technology and political climate of 2011. In a mostly excellent cast, it was Ms. Williams’ towering performance as Constance in the first act that held me rapt. A pillar of strength and nuance, Ms. Williams commanded every scene in which she appeared, with dynamite results. I had never heard of Williams before this production, but I look forward to seeing whatever she does from here on out.

It would be remiss of me to recount my favorite performances of the year and leave out the entire cast of The Normal Heart. When browsing through the list of shows I’ve seen this year, I kept coming back to The Normal Heart, and the individual performances of its ensemble, all stellar. Joe Mantello’s impassed Ned was a performance of a lifetime, John Benjamin Hickey was the heart and soul of that show. Meanwhile Ellen Barkin portrayed the takes-no-guff Dr. Brookner with an unsettling bluntness, and her explosion in act 2 is one of the most genuine expressions of rage I’ve ever witnessed in live theatre. Lee Pace, Jim Parsons, Patrick Breen, Mark Harelik and the rest of the company were all so excellent, it was one of the ensemble events of the year and a haunting experience for anyone fortunate to catch this multi-Tony winning limited engagement this spring.

Honorable mentions to those I saw performing as themselves, including Marilyn Maye at Feinstein’s last June (with a terrific song list, a great banter and delicious high kicks during the Jerry Herman encore), soprano Deborah Voight singing musical theatre standards at Carnegie Hall with the Collegiate Chorale (singing some of the best of musical theatre with great fun, but her personal triumph was “My Man’s Gone Now” from Porgy and Bess), and of course Hugh Jackman: Back on Broadway.

“Hamlet” @ HVSF

The esteemed Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival celebrated its 25th anniversary this year, and rather then rest on their laurels they decided to present Hamlet for the very first time. I admit, I was a bit surprised to hear they had never done this play before (as a relative neophyte to the joys of Boscobel, I just assumed they had already done it). However it seems that Terry O’Brien, the artistic director, had been waiting for the right time. And, my God, was this a production worth that wait.

Hamlet is arguably the greatest play ever written. The five hundred year old work still has scholars (dramatic and literary) debating and dissecting the words, the actions and the characters. Even people who have never seen nor read it are familiar with it, as so many of its lines have become part of the colloquial lexicon. I’ve loved the play since I first read it in my 11th grade English class, and through the years my appreciation for the play has only grown. Hamlet suspects his Uncle killed his father, the King, in order to gain the throne of Denmark. His suspicions are confirmed by a visitation from the ghost of his father, which sets the course for revenge in place.

O’Brien’s unrelentingly spare but vivid production doesn’t rely on a trendy concept or revisionist thinking. Stripped of scenic design, and with only a few props, the director and his superlative cast delved deep into the marrow of the play. While I’m still surprised it took HVSF 25 years to get around to Hamlet, the wait was worth it: this is the best production I have seen at Boscobel. And I doubt I’ve ever seen a more focused audience; a pin could drop during the silences and the palpable tension continued to build until the full-throttled denouement.

At the center of the play is Matthew Amendt, an immensely talented young actor who offered a Hamlet of considerable distinction; connecting with the audience in a way that I have never seen before. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever seen an interpretation of the character that so effortlessly grabbed the audience’s sympathy quite like Amendt. His choices were big and bold, but possessed a clarity and understanding that one usually finds in the most seasoned actors. Amendt’s youth works well for the characterization, and make Hamlet’s vacillation both entertaining and fascinating.

Amendt was also fortunate enough to be surrounded by a top-notch ensemble, with special kudos reserved for Jason O’Connell’s guilt-ridden, uncertain Claudius, Richard Ercole’s perceptive and canny Polonius and Valeri Mudik’s devastating Ophelia. One slight reservation, Gabra Zackman, while ultimately effective, read far too young as Gertrude (in the opening scene, she looked more like Hamlet’s peer than mother).

This was a staggering Hamlet; visceral, pulsating and demanding. The way O’Brien stages the scenes between Hamlet and his dead father hints at an unsettling horror that feels straight out of Tolkien. Even more vivid is O’Brien’s masterstroke that comes after the last line of the play, in which the death beckons forth those killed in the final ten minutes of the play. (I always enjoy the way the directors try to incorporate the vast Boscobel lawn in their productions, this was the most thrilling use of the space I’ve seen). The costumes and heavy metal music added to the overall pulse of the production. I can only hope that HVSF considers a return engagement in the near future because this is a production that needs to be savored as often as possible.

The throne of Denmark is desecrated by a bastard!

Or so I kept thinking as I watched the current revival of Hamlet, the second consecutive import from London’s Donmar Warehouse to play the Broadhurst Theatre. The first was last season’s well-received Mary Stuart (from which I’ve paraphrased for the title). While there is a different director and creative team behind Hamlet, there are elements in the scenography that are just too eerily reminiscent of the former play. The costumes are contemporized to complement a moody charcoal grey set set (complete with brick wall), except in lieu of Brooks Brothers suits, it was more Banana Republic meets Doctor Zhivago chic. Plus, certain key monologues were underscored by that same creepy synthesizer. It felt that at any moment, Harriet Walter and Janet McTeer would show up to throw Hamlet and his hot mess of a Royal Court out on its ear.

The play is performed frequently (this is the 66th known production on Broadway), has been filmed several times and is often taught in high school and college. Hamlet, the Prince of Denmark is visited by the ghost of his father, who implicates that Hamlet’s uncle murdered him to gain the throne. Hamlet has been despondent over the death of his father, but pushed further into his dejection when his mother marries his uncle less than two months later. What follows is one of the most analyzed and dissected revenge studies in literature.

There is one reason for this particular revival and that is Jude Law. The film star and this production is making its third and final stop, after successfully playing in London and Elsinore, its original cast mostly intact. Mr. Law doesn’t offer the bookish introspect one tends to expect. His indecision to enact revenge against his murderous uncle is calculated out of his rage. Law is unexpectedly dynamic as the eponymous character, and most unexpectedly, he’s often quite funny. However, when his anger gets the best of him, he is at his most terrifying and cruel, particularly when he dismisses Ophelia with scorn and has a chat with dear old Mom about marrying Uncle Claudius.

He also has the matter of those soliloquies to tackle: seven in total. The character of Hamlet is one of the most psychologically complex in drama, with actions and words that not only bewilder the people around him but often the audience as well. It is through those soliloquies that the audience comes closest to understanding the tragic hero. He offers what is probably Shakespeare’s most famous soliloquy, “To be or not to be,” but for as sumptuously as it was staged in the midst of an understated snow storm, and poignantly delivered by Mr. Law, it is overshadowed by his stunning execution of the previous soliloquy “O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I.”

Not all of the production is up to par. There is excellent staging with inventive visual images from director Michael Grandage, whose spare direction focuses on the text and makes it quite easy for newcomers to Hamlet and/or Shakespeare in general to understand what is going on. When it is Mr. Law and Mr. Grandage at work, the play works best. However, the production is marred by woefully uneven casting. As an ensemble, the actors are just not on the same plane as the star. Some fared better than others: Geraldine James grew on me as Gertrude as the evening progressed, scoring impressively in the bedroom scene as well as showing a reticence toward her new husband after seeing the effect she has had on her son. Ron Cook was amusing, but little else as Polonius. Peter Cook makes a better impression as the Player King than as the ghost of Hamlet’s father. Kevin R. McNally barely registered as an endlessly remorseful and endlessly boring Claudius. Gugu Mbatha-Raw isn’t up to the demands of the part of Ophelia, with an ineffectual mad scene that seemed to be in another play entirely. The play starts to sag whenever Law isn’t onstage (which admittedly isn’t often), and clocking in at well over three hours, there are times when you realize the play’s length.

One of my problems however, was with some members of the audience. I tend not to be an elitist snob about such things, but I was annoyed by some audience members who snickered and giggled endlessly at every line or phrase that has become a colloquialism. I found myself being taken out of the play several times as a result. It doesn’t help that there are so many of the them. But then again, I guess that’s a testament to what is arguably the greatest play ever written in the English language. One of the real joys of any production is to hear those words – it’s a transcendent work. This revival is a strictly limited engagement and I’m sure will be a hot ticket due to the movie star drawing power of Mr. Law. This Hamlet departs Elsinore December 6. However, if you miss this one, I’m sure revival number 67 won’t be too far behind.