17 June 2013

From Opera to Shakespeare with Janice Hall

Jason Wilson (Claudius) and Janice Hall (Gertrude).
Wilson is by far the youngest Claudius I’ve seen in a grownup production,
which lends his scenes with Gertrude an additional sexual charge.
Gertrude was a cougar: who knew? And yet it makes sense.
Photo by Russ Rowland.

I have sometimes used the word “reinvention” to describe what Janice Hall is doing as a performer — and her latest work persuades me that I should stop it. As she expands her horizons beyond the opera house and into cabaret and “legit” theater, she is adapting, perhaps, as she applies her skills to different forms, but she remains very much the same artist.

The performance in question is Janice’s assumption of Shakespeare’s Gertrude in the Seeing Place Theater’s production of Hamlet, currently running in repertory with Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead through June 29 and 30. (Janice plays Gertude in the Stoppard play, too.) Janice previously appeared with the troupe in Sam Shepard’s A Lie of the Mind, and to see Brandon Walker and Erin Cronican’s productions of these plays, one is struck by the similarities between the Shepard and the Shakespeare, particularly in Walker’s performances as the tormented American and the melancholy Dane.

As the Queen of Denmark, Janice brings to the stage a number of strengths, and while she may have picked them up on the street corner when she was a kid, for all I know, it’s certain that she honed them in opera. Really, I am beginning to think that all actors ought to spend a little time in the opera house before they turn to Shakespeare.

After all, for the greatest part of her career, Janice has been communicating with poetry. It must be said that very few opera librettos rival Shakespeare’s plays, but they do contain poetry. In Shakespeare, however, the actor must take on the roles that singer and composer take in opera. She must locate the music in the text, and then give voice to it. Even more challenging is the fact that she must locate the music all over again, every time she steps onto the stage.

And yet it’s absolutely imperative that she do so, because speeches in Shakespeare demand structure — or else the audience won’t be able to follow them. Even in a play as universally familiar as Hamlet. These Danes tell one another stories, such as Gertrude’s account of Ophelia’s death, which is in a very real sense an aria.* Again, Janice has been telling stories onstage this way all her life, and the approach she uses works in other kinds of theater, too: consider the way that another classically trained singer, Dixie Carter, constructed Julia Sugarbaker’s tirades on Designing Women.

Another great advantage that opera brings to Janice when tackling the Bard is command. Most of the major characters in Shakespeare, like most of the major characters in opera, are nobly born and accustomed since childhood to giving orders. Even Violetta and Cio-Cio San (to name two of Janice’s roles) have servants. This isn’t a question of being bossy, necessarily, but it does suggest an authority, a kind of confidence: Janice plays characters who, like Queen Gertrude and nearly everybody else in Hamlet, expect to be obeyed. (That’s one reason the Gravedigger’s scene is so much fun: he’s tweaking the Prince with the reminder that death is more powerful than any king.)

In Hamlet, the nobility of the characters is key not only to the fulfillment of the Aristotelian dictates for tragedy but also to understanding the stakes in the play. Shakespeare doesn’t give us Hamlet’s exact age, but he’s over 30 (his boyhood playmate, the jester Yorick, has been dead for 23 years), and in most societies, that’s very much considered maturity.** The laws of primogeniture therefore would deliver the crown to Hamlet, not to Claudius, the dead king’s younger brother.

Claudius’ hasty marriage to Gertrude thus takes on political significance, beyond the currents of sex and alcohol that run through Shakespeare’s depiction of them. Their alliance enforces his claim to the throne. And as a result, he needs her more than she needs him, and he’s naturally more alarmed by Hamlet’s attempts to influence her.

Janice is a little bitty slip of a thing in real life, and soft-spoken in all my interactions with her. But she is always gracious — which is, after all, part of being regal and fundamental to Gertrude’s character — and onstage she knows how to convey the necessary bearing and authority of a monarch. This works even in an updated Shakespearean production, such as this one, and in turn it heightens the effectiveness of the more basic, domestic passages in the play. Look at her exasperation whenever Hamlet starts to complain yet again about the marriage to Claudius. She’s like a suburban mom tired of her teenage son’s rebelliousness: she’s heard this rant a million times, and when will he ever let it drop? And yet she’s still every inch a queen.

Another actor friend, that eminent Shakespearean Andrew Weems, told me long ago that he’d developed an interest in opera (long after I’d tried and failed to steer him that direction), because he wanted to learn “how to roar.” He didn’t mean mere loudness, of course (I think he was born knowing how to do that much), but rather a sense of command, of grandeur in the occasion. Marilyn Horne talks about something similar in master classes, when she tells young singers, “You’ve got to be big.”

So much of opera, like so much of Shakespeare, entails bold passions, which an audience can’t fully appreciate unless the performer can rise to them. For singers, as I say, the trick is to find the inner music of the text — and to sing out, even when speaking.

So quite beyond my usual awestricken admiration for Janice’s talents and her success in finding new outlets for them, her performance as Gertrude has helped me to grasp several ideas that have been kicking around in my head for some time. That’s one of the lovely things about Shakespeare: there’s always something new, even in Hamlet. And it’s the mark of an artist to help us to understand anything in new ways.

There’s much else to recommend the production, and I do also want to single out Erin Cronican’s Ophelia, whose ultra-contemporary sassiness is absolutely faithful to the words on the page and helps her to build a surprisingly effective character — recognizable and yet still registering all the horror and pity of the poor girl’s plight.

And in the mad scene, she sings, too. So there.

Hamlet by William Shakespeare
May 31–June 29
Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 7PM
Also Tuesday, June 25 at 7PM
Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead by Tom Stoppard
June 1–30
Wednesdays at 7PM, Saturdays and Sundays at 2PM
The Seeing Place

At ATA Sargent Theater
314 West 54th Street, 4th Floor
New York
For more information and to order tickets, click here.

*NOTE: Gertrude’s speech inspired Hector Berlioz, among others. Ambroise Thomas cheated by letting Ophélie act out what Gertrude tells us about. But that’s what we might expect from a composer who lets Hamlet survive at the end of his opera.

**I except myself from this analysis, of course. I was Peter Pan when I was 30, and I still am.


Erin Cronican said...

Oh wow - thank you so much for the nice words! And thank you for such an amazing feature on Janice. I feel like I know (and like!) her even better now. :)

Janice Hall said...

It certainly has been a new challenge for me to speak Shakespeare, and in exactly the way you describe it.
Maybe that's why I do a full vocal warmup (a singing, OPERATIC vocal warmup) before each performance! Thanks for a most interesting article!