Arts In LA

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Our American Hamlet
Commonwealth Shakespeare Company in residence at Babson College

Reviewed by Bob Verini

Jacob Fishel, Maureen Keiller, Jake Broder, Will Lyman, and Joe Fria
Photo by Nile Hawver/Nile Scott Shots

Even if the youngest son hadn’t sought immortality by murdering our 16th president, the Booth family story would eminently qualify as the source of high drama, early-American style. In the saga of fabled, dissolute touring tragedian Junius Brutus, and even more fabled classical actor Edwin, can be found such fertile themes as father-son competitiveness; modern artistic concepts elbowing out traditional ones; infidelity and betrayal (Junius kept a second wife and family in the UK, to the chagrin of the home folks); sibling rivalry (young Johnny, too, aspired, to his father’s crown), and the remarkable and persistent vulnerability of performers to demon rum and mental illness.

   With the blossoming of an assassin on the family tree comes a wealth of additional facets, including a family’s shame at having raised a viper in their midst; the “celebrity murder” phenomenon, which caught on a century later but whose roots lay in the tragedy of 1865; the haunting of the present by the past; and the unforgiving nature of the mob, who insisted on tarring Edwin with the same bloody brush as John Wilkes. Multitalented Jake Broder—he who rocked L.A. with his writing and acting in Louis & Keely ‘Live’ at the Sahara and Miravel—has managed to incorporate all of the above thematic elements into a 90-minute dramatic portrait.

 Our American Hamlet received a stylish, accomplished world premiere engagement by the prestigious Commonwealth Shakespeare Company of Wellesley, Mass., and now that the short run (ending April 2) has ended, the way should be clear for some needed script work prior to the many additional productions that will doubtless follow. (Full disclosure: Jake hosted the 2016 LA Drama Critics Circle Awards, which I produced, and we became friends.)

The Booths have been the source of drama before, of course. But the biography Prince of Players, the film adaptation of the same name starring Richard Burton, and Milton Geiger’s stage play Edwin Booth failed to do their subject justice due to a sluggish, conventional, chronology-based approach.

   Broder has wisely chosen a more impressionistic take on the material, one that director Steven Maler has happily run with. The action is set within a framing device in which, months after the assassination, Edwin Booth (Jacob Fishel) is about to face the madding crowd in a New York revival of Hamlet. Passions are high and death threats swirling, as reported by Booth intimate Adam Badeau (a real-life character, portrayed by Broder here). Would it not be wiser to go abroad or just lay low? But Edwin is driven, and we alternate between the dressing room and flashes of his past, often enough to render it not just understandable but also inevitable that he would seek to make this most daring public appearance at this most fraught public moment.

   Julia Noulin-Merat’s set is itself a stage, opening out to the auditorium shown on the back wall, with a dressing room, ropes, and a locking rail stage left. And why not, since the world of the Booths was always the world of backstage and greasepaint. Maler and Noulin-Merat have platforms and furniture deftly sliding in and out so that the events of a half-century of touring and family tension can sail along. Particularly impressive is the sound design of David Remedios, which makes ghostly voices manifest and allows us to feel the impact of a bloodthirsty mob even while the onstage cast merely numbers seven.

But Broder has something even more sophisticated in mind than just fracturing time frame and incident. He has taken pains to weave the plot, characters, and lines of Hamlet into the Booths’ everyday and professional lives. This effort—which one senses really tickled the playwright—feels very right: A family defined by its relationship to the theater might well be in the habit of communicating through Shakespearean references. And with Edwin so obsessed by the role of the haunted Prince, it makes psychological sense that his shaky command of reality should be seen through the lens of that play.

   The whole thing is a tall order for any cast to handle, but Maler’s ensemble is up to the challenge. Fishel is a splendid Edwin, louche and period-believable in his relaxed moments and scarily frenzied when madness is upon him. You start to wish you could see him play Hamlet in full, which could be the best possible compliment to anyone portraying this role. The playwright is quite persuasive as Badeau, whom historians have believed for years was enamored of Edwin in every possible way and may or may not have made his intentions known; Broder subtly hints at the role’s undertones.

Jacob Fishel and Will Lyman
Photo by Nile Hawver/Nile Scott Shots

   The superb Will Lyman—a local stalwart, known by voice around the world as the longtime narrator of PBS’s Frontline—goes toe to toe with Fishel as the patriarch, while Joe Fria, familiar to LA audiences, manages to negotiate both the comic swagger and murderous mania of John Wilkes. Kelby Akin gets less to do as the eldest Booth son (I’d forgotten about June, who went off early to produce plays on the Pacific Coast and missed most of the sibling warfare), but acquits himself capably in various other roles. It’s a little odd to have the same actor double as Edwin’s sister and wife—yikes!—though Lucy Davenport differentiates them nicely; the doubling of Junius’s two wives is a little less weird and Maureen Keiller thrives in both parts.

To bring his play to the next level, Broder needs to reexamine his framing device, which is predicated on Badeau’s attempt to dissuade Edwin from making himself available to the angry crowd. But that effort dissipates quickly, and very soon each revisit to the 1866 playhouse just becomes a too-convenient way to lay out exposition. If we’re going to keep returning to them, Badeau and Edwin need a genuine dramatic question they can wrestle with for the play’s duration, and the transitions between 1866 and the past need clarifying (the director’s aid could be enlisted here). More knotty—although rather noble, all things considered—is the confidence Broder has that his audience is intimately familiar with Hamlet’s plot and lines. Amidst the prevailing 19th-century diction, we’re never quite sure when they’re shifting into Shakespearean quotes; as it is, those references seem shoehorned in by the playwright, rather than the result of conscious character choices.
   Whatever work it needs, Our American Hamlet is already an ambitious and absorbing entertainment.

April 10, 2017

Commonwealth Shakespeare Company in residence at Babson College, Wellesley, Mass. March 24–April 2. Running time 90 minutes.
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