By William Shakespeare
Produced by Shakespeare Theatre
Directed by Michael Kahn
Reviewed by Tim Treanor
This lush, gorgeous, thrilling, lucid, hilarious, moving, profound production of Hamlet succeeds because it is illuminated by an observation which is brilliant in its simplicity.
Hamlet is a kid.
Jeffrey Carlson plays theater’s toughest role as if he was a fish on a line, jerking, fighting, gasping for air, flopping back until he is finally landed, exhausted and mortally wounded, in the play’s final scene. That is to say, he plays it as a twenty year old, suddenly commissioned by the shade of his dead father to avenge the father’s death at the hands of his own brother – who is now Hamlet’s stepfather. Hamlet is rageful. Agonized. Clueless.
This insightful reimagining of the role opens up Hamlet’s mystery to us. Instead of attempting to suss out Hamlet’s master plan, or determining whether he is sane or not, we realize that Hamlet is improvising, desperately, to perform a task that no one – young or old – should ever be given. Thus, for example, Hamlet delivers his famous “to be or not to be” speech not as a philosophical discourse, but, bottle of pills in hand, as a man-child’s frantic effort to determine whether he should kill himself this very minute, before he has to cast Ophelia (Michelle Beck) out of his contaminated life. The opposing tropes are not legs of a dialectic but thoughts which flood and overwhelm his frustrated brain, making him alternately weep, and laugh, and howl out like a monkey.
Despite its rhetorical complexity, the story is one of Shakespeare’s simplest. Hamlet has come home from college (Wittenberg, where Martin Luther began the Protestant Revolution) to mark the death of his beloved father and the remarriage of his mother, Gertrude (Janet Zarish) to his father’s brother, Claudius (Robert Cuccioli) – an event Hamlet considers an obscenity. Denmark seems the worst prison in the world to Hamlet, until his friend Horatio (Pedro Pascal) reports astonishing news – the ghost of Hamlet’s father has appeared at the outer gates of the castle.
Hamlet appears to the ghost (Ted van Griethuysen), and the ghost speaks to Hamlet. It says that Claudius has killed him, and demands that Hamlet take his revenge.
Hamlet is best understood as the polar opposite of another play about regicide, Macbeth. In Macbeth, Shakespeare’s shortest play, the characters are controlled by the will to action, and thereafter are given over to remorse. In Hamlet, his longest, the characters are given over to reflection, to agonizing, to experiment, and especially to words. In Hamlet, the characters construct a castle of words, which also serves as a laboratory in which they can examine their choices. Not only Hamlet but all characters are prone to tests and measurements: the pompous windbag Polonius (Robert Jason Jackson), for example, proposes to test the causes of Hamlet’s melancholy by setting up an encounter between the Prince and Polonius’s daughter, Ophelia, with himself and Claudius as hidden observers. It is Hamlet, though, who proposes the most audacious experiment of all: he arranges for actors to reproduce – here as a kabuki play – Claudius’ assassination of Hamlet’s father, as related to Hamlet by the ghost. If Claudius reacts to this show, Hamlet reasons, then Claudius is guilty as charged. If Claudius does not react, then Hamlet is prepared to become his loyal subject, and his friend.
Up to this point – roughly midway in the play – neither Hamlet nor we know for sure whether Claudius has committed the dread crime. The ghost could be, after all, simply a manifestation of Satan, come to fool Hamlet into committing murder, as Hamlet himself suspects. Or it could be a trick of Hamlet’s troubled heart, longing for an act of concrete evil to explain the cruel death of his much-treasured father. But Claudius leaves no doubt: he shuts down the play, and runs howling to his chapel.
Hamlet is clearer on what must be done but no closer to understanding how to do it. Polonius, in his final action as a hidden observer, dies as Hamlet slashes the curtain, believing Claudius to be hiding there. This sets off a tsunami of cascading calamities, as Ophelia is driven mad, and then to death, and her brother Laertes (Kenajuan Bentley) is driven to revenge. The King’s Courtyard becomes an abattoir and the Danish state collapses. Hamlet has acted at last.
Director Michael Kahn has fully committed to a modern setting for this production, which means not only that the characters are dressed in contemporary clothes but that Ophelia, for example, steps out of the room to take a call on her cell phone, and listens to MP3s on her iPod. In a delightful nod to the pervasive influence of Stoppard’s play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (David L. Townsend and J. Clint Allen, respectively), frat boys both, make their entrance flipping coins at each other. There are a dozen other gorgeous touches, including Walt Spangler’s hypermodern set (dull glass cabinets, sometimes stuffed with fog, for walls) and Martin Desjardins’ ominous sound design.
The only false note in this otherwise flawless production comes from the play within the play. Hamlet’s objective is to prick Claudius’ conscience by using the actors to show the King his crime. But he first chooses to reenact the crime using puppets. Claudius, distracted by conversation with Gertrude, ignores the show. Only when it is staged a second time, as Kabuki, does Claudius react. How many times was Hamlet prepared to reenact the crime? And in what styles? Cowboy? Film noir?
But this minor discontinuity (which did have the upside of allowing us to see both the work of puppet designer extraordinaire Aaron Cromie and some very fine Kabuki) aside, this is an extraordinary production, made palpable (as Hamlet must be) by its fine cast. In addition to Carlson, Jackson as Polonius is particularly excellent. Jackson managed to make Polonius ridiculous without being implausible, a balancing act which contributes mightily to the great play’s great comedy. This is mostly a New York cast, but longtime Washington stage stalwarts van Griethuysen and Bill Largess (as the factotum Osrick) stand up well with them.
(Running time: 3:15) Hamlet continues in the Shakespeare’s Lansburgh Theatre, 450 7th Street NW, Tuesdays through Sundays until July 29. Tuesday, Wednesday and Sunday performances are at 7.30; performances on other evenings are at 8. There are also 2 p.m. matinees on Saturdays and Sundays. No shows on June 12 or July 4. Tickets range from $19 to $76.25 and can be obtained by calling the box office at 202.547.1122 or toll-free at 877.487.8849 or online.