The first scene of Directing Hamlet, playing now at Santa Paula Theater Center’s Backstage through June 26, unfolds like a series of Russian nesting dolls. Our play starts off during rehearsals for another play: Seasoned director Lee is coaching greenhorn actor Brian through Hamlet. As if that weren’t meta enough, they dive in with Hamlet’s Act 3, Scene 2 speech to the players, the one where he instructs them to “speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounced it to you, trippingly on the tongue.” Of course, poor Brian can hardly get the words out, so tripped up is his own tongue.
It quickly becomes clear that we are in for a play where language and the nature of acting itself will become the primary focus of meditation.
Playwright Michael Perlmutter, coming off a March production of My Perfect Alibi at the Bell Arts Factory in downtown Ventura, also directs this talky but skillful two-hander that manages to stay nimble and funny enough to keep the audience engaged throughout the nearly two-hour running time. Though the story advances to a somewhat predictable conclusion, Perlmutter is a local playwright worth watching to see what else he has up his sleeve.
The play opens at the first all-day rehearsal session between Brian (Curtis Cline), a 19-year-old using Shakespeare to beef up his resume, and Lee (Joe Boles), a formerly award-winning director who has backslid into regional theater after two divorces and various professional setbacks. Lee provokes Brian to get him past his stiff, self-conscious acting, pressing him to reveal details of his personal life in the process. The push and pull between actor and director, the antagonism embedded in the creative process, and the nature of art as both escape hatch and therapy all become fodder for the play’s gradual, circular advancement.
A product of the Stella Adler Conservatory in New York, Boles brings a Method actor’s naturalism to the role of Lee, who himself urges Method techniques on Brian. He is utterly convincing as the no-nonsense director prone to flights of metaphysical fancy. His jokes range wide, with eclectic references to Monty Python, the rhythm method and David Mamet, and turn on a dime. The play charges forward in the space between the jokes, then crumples as the pair’s delicate intimacy collapses like a house of cards.
Cline hits his stride in the second half, with Brian’s breakthrough moments as Hamlet far more convincing than Brian’s self-conscious fumbling as himself. His quick flashes of anger early on burn bright but cool; it’s hard to buy his brief explosions as anything deeper than adolescent exasperation. But Cline, when he allows Brian to become real — as in Hamlet’s speech after he comes upon Claudius praying — can be magical.
A theater lover’s play, Directing Hamlet invites more than a passing knowledge of the Bard’s most famous tragedy to make sense of its deeper levels. Unsurprisingly, much is said about fathers and sons; and, like Hamlet, Brian is beset by indecision. Should he trust himself to this zany director, or be rid of him? Though the resolution, in which we learn why Brian has put up with Lee’s bantering all day despite being tempted numerous times to storm out, is a bit too neat, and Lee’s own back story remains underdeveloped, the conclusion remains satisfying nonetheless.
It should be enough to say the play is a very solid effort worth seeing, and that Perlmutter will no doubt develop further with time — but what do I know? Lee says it best when he tells Brian not to worry too much about the critics.
“Reviews,” he says, and I paraphrase here, “only end up in your family’s scrapbook — or online, next to the porn ads.”
Directing Hamlet, June 10 to 26, Santa Paula Theater Center Backstage, 126 S. Seventh St., 525-4645 or www.santapaulatheatercenter.org/. No performance June 18.