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A CurtainUp Berkshires Review
By Elyse Sommer
Hamlet is probably more richly studded with Shakespeare's choicest quotes and produced more than any play in his canon. Yet this is the first time in Shakespeare & Company's 29 seasons that the Bard's Danish royals in whose kingdom something is decidedly rotten are being given a Main Stage production.
Three of the main characters are off-stage kin: Queen Gertrude, who has married her husband's brother and murderer is played by the company's founder and artistic director Tina Packer. Gertrude's appalled and grief-stricken son Hamlet is played by Packer's real life son, Jason Asprey. Dennis Krausnick, Packer's husband and Asprey's step-dad, is cast as Polonius, the wisdom spouting member of the Claudius-Gertrude court ("to thine own self be true" . . . "neither a borrower or a lender be"), and father of Hamlet's potential betrothed, Ophelia.
Typical of Shakespeare & Company's productions, this ever fascinating tale of murder, treachery and madness is staged with a small cast (eliminating some characters and double casting others) and without a lot of elaborate scenery. The few props, like the costumes, are modern -- a lucite chair on wheels, a bed instead of a whole boudoir, a box that can metamorphose into a grave.
Director Eleanor Holdridge has put her own spin on the opening scene. No battlement with sentinels, just Hamlet on a dark stage made visible by a burst of intense light as he delivers a fragmentary soliloquy that includes such famous utterances as "to be or not to be."
According to the director's notes, that jarring light symbolize "the electrical synapse impulses of Hamlet's dying brain, creating flashes of memory or imagination." In short the feverish opening speech is a dying man's jagged recap of the father's death and consequent madness and conundrums he has experienced.
Whether you buy Holdridge's concept or not, it certainly makes for a striking opening. Happily, what follows has enough dramatic flair and substance to keep you engaged throughout the story of a son faced with his father's death, his mother's transformation into love-smitten bride of his duplicitous uncle and his own role as the disenfranchised ruler of the kingdom -- plus the parallel tragedy of Ophelia and Laertes, the children of another murdered father. Les Dickert and Scott Killian's stunning light and sound effects so permeate the entire production that they function as characters in their own right and more than compensate for the spare scenery.
With a completely unabridged Hamlet averaging at least four hours, this somewhat condensed, highly stylized three hour production moves at a nonstop pace, its plot easy to follow and the dialogue spoken with absolute clarity.
The actors' modern attire is not a means for any drastic alterations in terms of time or place, though the colors have strong metaphoric implications. Hamlet wears black throughout to underscore his glum and mournful mood (except for tiny bit of red which foreshadows the bloodshed to come). Queen Gertrude first appears in a bright blue outfit reminiscent of the current British monarch's insistently cheery pastel ceremonial getups, in the bedroom scene her dress is bloody red and, eventually she too is in mourning colors; Claudius and Polonius sport typical corporate grey suits with touches of color in the best Armani/ Brooks Brothers fashion.
While the title role is often considered as a major milestone in a mature actor's career, this Hamlet is very much a young man's play. Given his youth, Asprey acquits himself very well though he probably needs a few more years onstage to bring all the variations of mood and texture to this demanding role. As it is, his prince tends to be more fiercely outraged and out of control than melancholy and indecisive, which makes scenes like the boudoir confrontation with his mother stand out.
The young man's play focus is strongly supported by Howard W. Overshown as Hamlet's friend Horatio; also Kevin O'Donnell as Laertes and Stephen James Anderson as Fortinbras, the play's other sons dealing with the loss of a father. The ebullient and dynamic Tina Packer cedes center stage to her on/offstage son and plays Gertrude with wonderful restraint. Even greater restraint (in fact, almost too much) is evident Dennis Krausnick's Polonius. Nigel Gore's Claudius is fine, though he could do with a bit more menace and inner turmoil.
In the perennially difficult role of Ophelia, Elizabeth Raetz, after a somewhat silly Valley Girl/Chick Flick/Flower Child entrance, rouses our sympathy with a wrenching descent into madness. For a touch of camp, Holdridge has turned Hamlet's friends Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern, the two minor characters given a clever play of their own by Tom Stoppard, into two colorful fops. They are played with panache by Tom Wells and Kenajuan Bentley. A triple round of applause to John Windsor-Cunningham for all three of his roles -- as King Hamlet's Ghost, the player king and a grave digger.
Of the many standout moments that make the play seem shorter than three hours perhaps the most moving are the burial scenes. The most controversial directorial touch is likely to be Holridge's staging of the play within a play scene which has Hamlet force the King and Queen to be active participants. I quite liked it though I can see where others are apt to have different views about this -- but then it's the play's adaptability to new interpretation and ongoing ability to seed lively post-curtain discussions that has kept it at the top of the Bardian favorites list.
To read some of Curtainup's reviews of all manner of Hamlet productions, ranging from classic to one version without any dialogue, check out our Shakespeare page.
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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