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Hamlet at the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival
Now in its 25th season, the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival has been a favorite destination for Bardolators who like their Shakespeare staged incisively and with a lively contemporary bent. O'Brien, who is the founding artistic director of the Festival, is mounting Hamlet for the first time in its quarter-century history. It marks a 180-degree artistic turn for him since in recent seasons he has grappled with the less accessible and familiar plays — for example, his last year's staging of the least loved play in the canon, Troilus and Cressida which he made more palatable by grafting on Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong's lyrics in pivotal scenes about war and sexual betrayal. Another memorable O'Brien production was a blithe and buoyant Measure for Measure in 2000 when he opened r the second half of the evening with a tableau that had the pious Isabella in the foreground contrasted by cast members executing a Las Vegas-style chorus line and lip-syncing Eartha Kitt's sensuous "Santa Baby." To be sure, this winkingly highlighted Angelo's hypocritical nature and sexual fantasy of seducing the chaste Isabella. It all explains why an O'Brien production often trumps the popular Public Theater's Shakespeare in the Park productions.
What makes his new Hamlet succeed is not anything drastic but its simple and straight-forward retelling of the myth. Though some original musical numbers are slipped in, it's the faithful adherence to the text and the complete trust in Shakespeare's language that levitates the evening.
His 3 hour-plus presentation deftly incorporates all of the major soliloquies as well as the play's familiar set pieces. It's a tad long, but worth the time spent for the rare chance to fully experience the intricate plot and its complex dramatis personae. Whether it's Hamlet's best-known soliloquy (that one the audience whispers in sync with the actor) delivered at turbo-charged speed by the excellent Matthew Amendt, or Claudius's "O, my offense is rank" speech performed by veteran festival actor Jason O'Connell, these passages ask the big questions about the human condition and morality. Though you aren't likely to experience an epiphany during Hamlet's most famous speech, if you listen closely to Claudius's faux confession about his brother's murder and hasty marriage to Gertrude in Act 3, Scene 3, you just might discover the crux of his dilemma: It's impossible to make one's bed while still lying in it.
Although I have seen more psychologically probing versions of Hamlet, this one has some unforgettable scenes and images. This Ghost from the get-go beggars description. Instead of the traditional solitary figure who haunts the play like a will-o-the-wisp, we are presented with a double Ghost — literally. The first spectre, clad in traditional steely armor, is firmly restrained by a more sinister-looking "wrangler"(Richard Ercole) holding a rope around the other's waist. Listen carefully to this spooky double whammy Ghost and you will also hear the unmistakable sound of dogs' barking (sound design by William Neal) which uncannily evokes that triple-headed dog Cerberus who guards Hades's gates. Though riveting moments abound, I was hooked by this arresting Ghost scene early in Act 1. The peculiar portrayal of Old Hamlet's Ghost might not resolve all the thorny questions about this paradoxical apparition, but Director O'Brien cogently charts the Ghost's purgatorial progress from Act 1 until it vanishes into ether. What's more, he inserts a Ghost scene (not in Shakespeare's original text) in the denouement that remarkably underscores the play's revenge motif and more.
Significantly, the Festival plays don't boast any big name actors. Mr. O'Brien strongly supports the ensemble philosophy, and his cast is comprised of seasoned professionals and a few passionate amateurs. While it's difficult to single out any one actor from the strong ensemble, several deserve mention: Michael Borrelli plays Horatio with sharp intelligence; Ryan Quinn is well-cast as the impulsive Laertes; Richard Ercole gives a human dimension to the hapless Polonius; Gabra Zackman is appropriately wishy-washy as Gertrude; Katie Hartke effectively re-genders Rosencrantz; Stephen Paul Johnson exudes polish as the Player King; and Valerie Mudek is a deeply affecting as well as a very attractive Ophelia. There are also some evidences of slippage. Amendt's Hamlet could be more forceful at the opening of his "How all occasions do inform against me" soliloquy. . .Zackman's Gertrude sounds less-than-convincing in her "There is a willow grows askant" speech, describing Ophelia's drowning in Act 4, Scene 7. But these are only quibbles for their otherwise fine showing.
You can find more streamlined productions of Hamlet in New York this summer, like the extremely compact Korean adaptation of Hamlet (Hamyul/Hamlet) currently at La Mama, but if you want the full scope of the play, The Hudson Valley version is by far the better bet. It captures not only the poignant domestic drama, but the epic reach of Shakespeare's work. While Mr. O'Brien has become known for retooling Shakespeare's dark comedies and "problem plays," his Hamlet proves that he can tackle this juggernaut of a tragedy too, and without altering the play's language so that you hear,Shakespeare's poetry as if it were new-minted..
And, oh yes. If you're wondering who is the real star of this production, it's a no-brainer. It's Mother Nature herself. The grounds of Boscobel Restoration offers panoramic vistas of the Hudson Highlands, and it's a breath-taking backdrop for the Bard's most famous play.
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