Bard Stiff

Creating theater frequently involves assembling miracles in small spaces. Extremely small spaces, if you happen to be the Florida Playwrights' Theatre (FPT), which is mounting its Fifth Annual Shakespeare Festival in its postage-stamp Hollywood storefront venue. Squeezing Hamlet and The Tempest -- Shakespeare's most popular play and his most magical -- onto a stage that's all of 15 feet deep by 30 feet wide might be compared to docking the QE2 at Dinner Key. The results, as you might expect, are sometimes charming but more often a mess.

The two plays appear in repertory. This means that two kings, one queen, several lovers, one jester, two gravediggers, several counselors and gofers (including Rosencrantz and Guildenstern), assorted pages and sprites, three Greek goddesses, a boatswain, two spirits (one savage, one ethereal), a lonely prince, and a wily old magician must trek through the tiny performing space, all the while careful not to step on one another's toes nor fall into the laps of the audience sitting just inches away.

For the theatergoer, the repertory tradition of shoehorning actors into several parts has its rewards. The guy who one night plays Laertes (the brother of Hamlet's girlfriend Ophelia) shows up the next evening as a prince shipwrecked on a near-desert island and forced to tote firewood for a strange old man. The woman who acts the Player Queen in The Mousetrap -- the charade in which Hamlet famously sets out to "catch the conscience of the king" -- turns up later in The Tempest as Ariel, a spirit you'd never encounter in medieval Denmark. The effect is to draw the viewer into the stagecraft and to give us an intimacy with the actors that doesn't happen when there's just one play on the bill.

As partners in repertory, The Tempest and Hamlet are an intriguing match. Hamlet requires top-drawer acting and movement (after Henry V, it's Shakespeare's best action-adventure), while a production of The Tempest can almost stand on its evocation of magic alone. Both plays, however, are large-scale dramas. At the FPT The Tempest fares best, partially because it succeeds at portraying the strange universe of the tiny island ruled by Prospero. Unfortunately it also upstages its sister production, as Hamlet suffers from directorial mishaps and mediocre acting. Also, for reasons that remain mysterious, the actors in The Tempest get better costumes.

Directed by Paul Thomas, FPT's co-artistic director who also plays Alonso here and Hamlet's Claudius, The Tempest opens with a vision of nymphs (the young and quite charming Maddie Weisbrot, Jonathan Gutierrez, and Shannon O'Connor) dancing around Ariel, the good spirit who inhabits Prospero's island and does his bidding. Bird songs abound, music plays, and, just as Shakespeare intended, the power of magic rarely departs. This mood sets the scene for the appearance of Prospero, the magician who was once Duke of Milan until his title was usurped by his brother Antonio. He now has designs on the ship full of noblemen from Milan that crashes near the island as the play opens.

The set -- two raised platforms on either end of the performing space, decorated by a mural of a lush mountainous area -- is crude and ugly but ceases to be important once the actors arrive. The story, which comes into focus as Prospero tells his daughter Miranda of the events that led to her growing up motherless and alone with him on the island, is much like a fairy tale into which real people stray. Here those people are portrayed by performers who fall primarily into two camps: the actors who give lively but unpolished performances and those few who are capable of making something fresh out of their characters. Despite his own considerable shortcomings as an actor, Thomas is a good director. He deftly arranges the action to suit the bizarre sightlines of this tiny theater. Still, the energy of the play wanders into some unexpected places.

For example, France-Luce Benson's performance of Ariel has a lot of attitude but not a lot of design. She's exotic-looking and appealing, a dark-skinned actress outfitted in a white chiffon getup with silver sparkles on her skin, but her flashy style can't conceal a paucity of acting skills. On the other hand, Mike Maria, outfitted as the jester Trinculo in a four-color silk tunic with a matching bellhop's hat, gives one of the best portrayals of a minor Shakespeare character you'd ever want to see.

Speaking in an unidentifiable accent (Dutch? Oklahoman?), he cavorts like the happy offspring of a spider and an English music hall comedian. Every move is sure and thought out, and he's delightful to watch. What's unsettling, however, is that director Thomas allows Maria to overwhelm the scenes he's in. A person unfamiliar with the play might come away thinking that Trinculo was a crucial character rather than primarily a source of comic relief.

At the same time, David J. Hernandez plays Caliban, the evil spirit under Prospero's thumb, as a whiny stable boy and not the earthy, inarticulate lump of clay he's supposed to be. Seth Platt as Antonio is much too young to be Prospero's brother, but that doesn't matter because the subplot -- in which Antonio and Sebastian plot to kill the king of Naples -- never engages our attention. As Ferdinand, son of the king and the first man Miranda ever sets eyes on, Patrick Armshaw, with his corn-fed smile and boyish demeanor, is the very picture of a young Shakespearean lover. He's appealing and soulful and (unlike many around him) very much in control of iambic pentameter.

As Prospero (the character who is thought to be one of Shakespeare's several self-portraits) Matthew Regan is somewhat muted, an old man who's more tired than angry. Prospero's most famous speeches ("I'll drown my book" and "We are such stuff as dreams are made on") have less effect coming from Regan than does the more human-size scene in which Prospero presents Miranda to Ferdinand. Here he's a protective father whose ambivalence about his daughter's marriage almost upstages his happiness at the match. Michelle Diaz as Miranda, however, makes hardly any impression at all.

Hamlet, under the direction of co-artistic director Angela Thomas, has fewer redeeming qualities. I'm a fan of Angela Thomas, and I cherish the memories of several of her recent performances, particularly her show-stopping turn in Laughing Wild a few seasons back. But I'm not convinced she made many good decisions while directing this production. The blocking -- the design by which actors move across the stage -- seems to be conceived for a much larger space. The result is that it's difficult to focus on much of the action because you can't see everything. For example, Hamlet's reaction as his father's ghost appears can't be seen from more than half the seats in the house.

When the gigantic tableau is visible, much of it is lacking in directorial imagination. Given the creativity that drives Thomas's own acting, I had hopes she would deliver a Hamlet that turned the liabilities of the tiny theater into assets. She could stage the drama in a black space, with no props or costumes, in the manner of Trevor Nunn's famous 1976 studio production of Macbeth. Do away with those awful Druid-tunic-meets-Greek-toga costumes. At the very least, stress some aspect of the story that justifies its resemblance to a creaky high school production. It's bad enough that many of the actors are carried off by their lines and not the other way around.

As the Prince of Denmark, Todd Allen Durkin looks like the portrait of Hamlet on the cover of the Folger library paperback edition of the play; an elegant youth in a lace shirt holds a dagger, very much the traditional image that we carry of the character. Unfortunately Durkin's performance, albeit polished, doesn't get far from the conventional notion of Hamlet as a moody aesthete rather than a living, breathing guy whose problems we can understand. While Durkin has his moments -- some of them thrilling, even -- he's not consistently compelling, and I often had the sense I was watching someone still learning the role. What's needed is someone we can't take our eyes off.

Fifth Annual Shakespeare Festival: The Tempest and Hamlet (in repertory). Through September 20. Written by William Shakespeare. Directed by Paul and Angela Thomas. Starring Patrick Armshaw, France Luce-Benson, Andre Todd Bruni, Michelle Diaz, Todd Allen Durkin, Mike Maria, Seth Platt, and Matthew Regan. Florida Playwrights' Theatre, 1936 Hollywood Blvd, Hollywood; 954-925-8123.

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