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Hamlet

Please -- Not To Be, Already

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This town hasn't even existed for a year, and yet I feel as though I've already witnessed the 500th (or so) local production of Shakespeare's Hamlet. Credit the hard-working Blockhouse Players for trying to bring some Culture to this desolate 'Burg, sure -- but this is the New World, people. Can't the company find something more relevant than the story of a sad rich boy mooning about a gloomy old castle?

The scene is set among Danish monarchs would-be and otherwise, and the murdered king's ghost haunts the premises. Fair enough: Our own King is just, and we all know the sort of sprites that animate these forsaken wooded hillsides of an autumn night. But from there, the thing goes right off the rails.

None of the principal characters has an ounce of plausibility, and the plot turns on the sort of threadbare skullduggery that wouldn't puzzle a goat. The role of Ophelia in particular -- Arthur Moncrief bears its petticoated burdens -- is dreadfully underwritten; it should give women relief that they are yet barred from trodding the boards. Meanwhile, in the title role, Robert Runcibold gestures emphatically, but it's no use: The prince's on-again, off-again resolve to act -- a real philosopher! -- is alone enough to herd anyone to the exits early.

The production is directed by Sidney Barrels-Whitehead, who deserves praise for a set that both avoids falling down and keeps the playing area reasonably free of swine and fowl.

Here is one problem. Ever since the Allegheny River mooring mishap that sent the Forks of the Ohio New-Country Gateway-to-the-West Masquers floating off to parts unknown, the Blockhouse Players have, literally, no theatrical peers on the local scene. That makes Pittsburgh's Cultural District a forlorn 80-square-foot patch of thistle indeed.

But what is it that drives Pittsburgh's lone theater company to stage Hamlet over and again? My suspicion is the wholly unwarranted reputation of its playwright. The man's been dead for 150 years now, but no one's content to let him rest.

This decocts, I think, from our lingering attachment to the old country. Those Elizabethan certitudes are a hard habit to break!

Kings, of course, shall rule us always, and empires grow to span the continents. But Old Bill is a different story; his five-act marvels simply don't have legs. Mark my words, by Pittsburgh's 50th anniversary, Shakespeare will have been long forgotten.

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