26 June 2008

Yesterday I waited in line for five hours to see the Public Theater's production of Hamlet at Shakespeare in the Park, and while I wouldn't say that the effort was wasted, the more I think about it, the more I end up feeling perplexed and disappointed. For most of its great length, this version of Hamlet is a fine one: Michael Stuhlbarg—although old for the part at 39—makes for a manic but lucid Hamlet; Sam Waterston and Jay O. Sanders are excellent as Polonius and the Ghost; and Lauren Ambrose—yes, her—is a perfect Ophelia. As far as the cast goes, the only real letdown is Andre Braugher's Claudius: I've been a huge fan of Braugher for years, but he fails to give the part any spark of inner life. As a character, Claudius is always outmatched by Hamlet, of course, but here, his presence barely seems to register on the other characters, much less the audience.

This isn't a fatal flaw. Up to the very last moment, this production of Hamlet is entertaining, engaging, and, best of all, beautifully spoken—it does perfect justice to the density and beauty of the text. And then...

The last ten seconds are a travesty. John Lahr describes the utterly baffling ending here, and does a nice job of expressing how bizarre and unmotivated it seems: "What is going on? Is this the end of history? Of storytelling? Are we on Candid Camera?" It's as if the last scene of The Departed had been accidentally spliced onto the end of the play. On its own terms, the ending is clever, but in context, it's so grossly miscalculated that it makes me question my lingering goodwill towards the rest of the production. Instead of leaving the theater with thoughts of Hamlet, Shakespeare, or anything else, the audience is compelled to discuss an infantile sick joke. It hijacks the entire play. If other directorial choices throughout the production had prepared us for it, I might feel differently, but as it stands, it feels utterly arbitrary. As such, it represents an incredible show of vanity on the part of the director, Oskar Eustis, who should have known better. As Hamlet says to the players: "That's villainous, and shows a most pitiful ambition in the fool that uses it."

10 June 2008

Before going to the R.E.M. concert on Friday, I ended up at a bookstore near Wailin's office, where I bought a discounted copy of the tie-in book to Wordplay. (I was running out of crossword puzzles.) Later, during an intermission at the concert, Wailin and I ended up working on one of the crosswords. When the man seated next to me saw what we were doing, the following conversation took place:

Man: "Is that a Will Shortz puzzle?"
Me (holding up the book): "Yeah, from Wordplay. Have you heard of it?"
Man: "Well, actually, it was directed by my brother-in-law."

His wife, who was seated nearby (along with their three children), turned out to be Patrick Creadon's sister. She was amused by the coincidence, and even took a picture of me holding up the book, which she said that she would send to Patrick. (Apparently he's a big R.E.M. fan.) We chatted a bit about crosswords before the concert began. Apparently they held the premiere party for Wordplay at their house, where they got to meet all of the contestants profiled in the movie. According to the husband, Al Sanders, not surprisingly, is a one heck of a nice guy, while one of the other guests was "one of the weirdest people I've ever met in my life." (Guess which one!)

Anyway, that improbable coincidence overshadowed the rest of the concert, which was a lot of fun, although I quickly realized that most of my favorite R.E.M. songs ("Find the River," "Electrolite," etc.) are less than suited for a stadium setting. Stipe looked and sounded great, though, and they even brought Johnny Marr onstage for a quick jam session. At the end of the concert, Stipe pinned an Obama button to his lapel, to thunderous applause and cheers from the Chicago crowd. All in all, it was a pretty good night.

06 June 2008

Wailin and I are seeing R.E.M. tonight at the United Center in Chicago, allowing me to cross another entry off my list of Bands to See Before I Die. (Largest remaining omission: the Arcade Fire.) Although I'm excited by the prospect of the concert, and reassured by the fact that Accelerate is a very solid album (Noah, any thoughts?), I'm finding myself even more thrilled by the presence of Modest Mouse, a band to which I've hitherto had little exposure. The reason for my excitement? Their latest album is a fine one, yes, but there's also the matter of the band's latest member, a fellow named Johnny Marr. Marr is arguably the greatest guitarist of my lifetime, and between this concert and the Morrissey show at Radio City Music Hall (four years ago!), I'm that much closer to mentally assembling the Smiths reunion of my dreams. And who knows? Sometimes these dreams come true. Stranger things have happened...