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Deconstructing Burning Coal's Hamlet

And remembering dance teacher Carol Richard

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Hamlet

Burning Coal Theatre
Pittman Auditorium
St. Mary's School, Raleigh
Through Sept. 30

Brian McManamon as Hamlet, with Sarah Mosher Wilson - PHOTO BY THE RIGHT IMAGE PHOTOGRAPHY

Whenever directors truly intend to make their own mark on a classic of the theater, we should expect them to do several things. Peel off the yellowed varnish of iconography for starters, layer by impacted layer, and get the characters and their situations back down to human size. Strip away as many of the expectations and received truths about the text as possible; ask what these characters, or ones like them, look like now, in our own time and cultures.

Artistic director Jerome Davis has clearly and carefully done all of these in his production of Hamlet. The characterizations at the center of this Burning Coal Theatre Company season opener, in Pittman Auditorium at St. Mary's School in Raleigh, are as spare as the rest of its minimalist production concept. On a stage empty except for three rows of chairs where actors sit at its perimeter, Davis attempts to reduce everything in this show to the essentials

But Davis seems to have stripped away too much, particularly in the title character, played by visiting artist Brian McManamon. Productions emphasizing the youth and inexperience of central characters have breathed new life and insight into works like Romeo and Juliet. But a different result occurs when Davis makes this Hamlet—along with his compatriots Horatio, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern—basically fun-loving college students who are a bit above average, but far too hip to really, you know, go in for that whole goth thing. (The notion of style superseding something else is emphasized by Joie Martin's dark-on-dark ensemble costumes, apparently on loan from the art mafia.)

Yes, they were college kids. Unfortunately, this production seems to set aside the extreme rarity of that phenomenon 400 years ago. As in his other monologues, the urbanity of McManamon's reading of "O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I"—and the bizarre little tantrum that interrupts it—both suggest a relatively light young spirit, one who is bandying about hypotheses on duty, agency and revenge. Not, in short, a troubled prince of 30, whose soul is well in the process of being crushed by a set of acutely perceived obligations.

As the regicidal Claudius, Holden Hansen demonstrates a similarly improbable lightness of motive. As with the title character, Davis again endeavors here to avoid cliché. But if earlier productions vended melodrama in this character, almost the only element left of Claudius' evil here is its banality. Claudius comes off too much as just another guy who made a morally indefensible choice. As with Hamlet, we sense a character who entertains emotions at a distance more than he ever claims them.

On the other hand, Ashlee Quinones' Ophelia and Stephen Letrent's Laertes manage to deliver rare emotional authenticity. Elsewhere, visitor Corey Tazmania combines sharpness with the clinging vine as Queen Gertrude, and Al Singer and Lucius Robinson's bawdy set piece as two gravediggers gives a brief and welcome comic turn to the proceedings.

But when Jeffrey Dillard's first scenes as a decidedly nebbish Horatio are marred by fast talk in a high-pitched, whiny monotone and another seizure, do we debit the director or the actor? Roger Drake's Southern-tinged work as the ghost of Hamlet's dead father impresses, until references to his infernal prison-house seem more expressions of complaint than true horror. Throughout, delivery speed foils several actors, sacrificing subtext in the work of Hanson and the usually fine George Jack as Polonius.

Ultimately, this Hamlet replaces too little of what it removes from its central themes and characters. Intellectually impressive but emotionally suspect, one of the main lessons we gain from this useful experiment is this: When a work's epic dimensions are removed to this extent and nothing takes their place, the results are less than epic as well.


There simply couldn't have been a more appropriate conclusion to the reception celebrating the life of teacher and choreographer Carol Richard than the one I witnessed from a dimly lit hallway through the glass of Studio B Sunday afternoon, upstairs at the Ballet School of Chapel Hill. A note on the door stated that the room, shaded now by the green leaves of trees, had been Richard's favorite dancing space at the school she joined in 1981 before ultimately becoming its director.

The note invited us all to enter the room and continue the dance: 16 counts in a line, and then 16 of our own devising. Men, women, young, old, braided through the studio, dancing in grace and chaos to music Richard had particularly enjoyed.

Earlier that day, photographer and essayist John Rosenthal presided over a moving memorial ceremony at Duke's Ark dance studio, where Richard once taught. But its original design as a Quaker-style mingling of stillness and speech was abridged. Nearly an hour was required for the letters alone—from Berlin, Baltimore, New York and places closer to home. News of the spirit: tributes of respect and love from family, former students and professional dancers.

I don't believe I ever saw Carol Richard dance. Instead, ours was a relationship of long, good conversations, in the Southern style, three or four times each year. We'd convene and discuss dance, dance criticism and our community of practice, among other things. Her keen critical and analytical eye was as obvious as her good will.

I never had her for a class. Still, somehow, I learned much from her. She is missed.

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