The Tragedie of Hamlet,
Prince of Denmarke
Down-sized, imaginative Hamlet maintains the Bard’s core
|(re)discover theatre presents|
|The Tragedie of Hamlet, Prince of Denmarke|
Review by Lawrence Bommer
The Bard’s “Danish play” was never this intimate. Literally “in-your-face” in its tiny space on Clark Street, this less-is-more Hamlet runs a little more than half the opus’ purported four hours. It’s done very barely (but not barely done)—and not just the bodkins. Matthew Wills’ very accessible runway production puts the 40 audience members just a few feet away from four deaths and a ghost. (Happily, the sword fights are done in slow motion.)
Imagination—the audience’s as much as the players’—makes up for a blockbuster’s budget. Still, there are enough physical tricks to make Ophelia’s suicide by stream and the eulogy of “poor Yorick” inventive and authentic. Plus, as if to make sure it’s not confused with any of the 100,000 previous “Hamlets,” this bold staging rearranges certain scenes into “flashbacks” from others and frames the story with Hamlet’s advice to the players: The production’s prophetic last words are simply, “Speak the speech.”
Of course, the crux of Wills’ rapid-fire, hyperkinetic “rush job” of Hamlet, a first offering from the back-to-basics (re)discover theatre, is a young college student: Hamlet’s coming of age is no worthy initiation into adulthood—it’s a blatant loss of innocence. It’s hard enough to be wrenched from the sheltered enclave of the University of Wittenberg to discover that raw evil stalks the world. But to learn that murder festers in the heart and hands of your uncle and that your mother is the killer’s lover… It would unhinge more fragile souls. But, of course, Hamlet only pretends to be mad.
What he can’t feign is his doubts about action. The famous soliloquies are so many nervous breakdowns triggered by the very real fear that revenging his father’s murder will make him as wicked as the perpetrators—and still not stanch the wound on Denmark. As it turns out, Hamlet is right: It takes a foreigner’s claim to the throne to cleanse Elsinore and its realm. Fortinbras acts out Hamlet’s destiny and “The rest is silence.”
But it’s the sounds that come before that silence that make or break Hamlet —and Hamlet. Jon Matteson fully earns his right to the role. Intense times ten, his sad-eyed, super-spry Hamlet is every inch the victim of the moment, not so much paralyzed by the prince’s patented indecision but manic with self-loathing over how much more active evil is than its opposite.
This anguished searcher for truth creates the extremes that define the others. Miriam Reuter’s Ophelia is a lacerating exposure of a lady who trusted in love and found it all in Hamlet, then learns that her romance was also laced with lies. (I’m not sure that a newly inserted sex scene between the lost lovers really works–but this play was never family-friendly. But I like how, when a demented Ophelia thinks she’s strewing flowers, she’s really scattering rats across the stage.)
As craven Claudius and guilty Gertrude, Dan Toot and Josie Nahas are role models for nobody, their shame sentencing them as much as the fifth-act massacre. Charlie Askenaizer offers sturdy support as stalwart Horatio. As Hamlet’s opposite in action and resolution, Jessica Shoemaker has the requisite energetic defiance–but the gender-bending adds nothing and skewers Laertes’ relationship to Ophelia and Polonius. (Joan of Arc may have earned her armor but in barbaric Denmark women’s aggression had to be passive.)
Playing the ghost of Hamlet’s father, Jay Reed enters the theater from Clark Street as if he’d just come out of the graveyard across the street. Finally, David Cady Jr. offers a windbag Polonius too caught up in his own intrigues to see the danger of the “big picture” curdling around him. As happens too often with Hamlet, the foppish treatment of officious Osric is a bit too much.
All in all, this really is a rediscovered Hamlet, just what Shakespeare deserves–and probably expected.
The Tragedie of Hamlet, Prince of Denmarke continues through February 25th at Luna Central (formerly Live Bait Theater), 3914 N. Clark (map). Tickets are $12, and are available at the door or online here. More information at rediscovertheatre.com. (Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes, which includes one intermission)
Jon Matteson (Hamlet); Miriam Reuter (Ophelia); Jessica Shoemaker (Laertes);
Charlie Askenaizer (Horatio); Dan Toot (Claudius); Josie Nahas (Gertrude); David Cady, Jr. (Polonius); Cat Kusch (Rosencrantz, Priest); AJ Miller (Guildenstern, Osric); Candice Allen (Bernardo, Captain, Player 1, Player King); Jay Reed (Ghost, Gravedigger); Mark Chaitin (Francisco, Player 3 (Lucianus), Messenger, GD 3); Tracey Kaplan (Marcellus, Sailor, Player 2, Player Queen, Fortinbra)
behind the scenes
Matt Wills (director, co-producer); Jon Matteson, Miriam Reuter (co-producers); Jessica Shoemaker (text coach); Mark Jacob Chaitin (asst. text coach); Molly Slavin (marketing); Bobby Arnold (stage manager); Janet Howe (costumes); Aaron Pagel (fight choreography)