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Revenge, sinister suspense, Oedipal lust and unabashed emotions—these are a few of Hamlet’s favorite things. Apparently, they’re audiences’ favorites as well.
“More ink has been spilled over ‘Hamlet’ than over any other [secular] work of literature,” according to Michael Mack, associate professor of English at the Catholic University. For more than 400 years, scholars, teachers and directors have rehashed Shakespeare’s convoluted tale: Hamlet’s uncle kills his father and then marries his mother. Hamlet learns his uncle is the killer from his father’s ghost and seeks suicidal vengeance. In the end though, everyone pays.
We all know it by heart, so why would we want to sit through it again? The brilliancy of the Shakespeare Theatre’s current production is more than reason enough. Its rendering could squeeze tears out of the most stoic of spectators.
This production moves beyond the traditional interpretation of the script. Many critics consider “Hamlet” to be the Bard’s best and one of his more enigmatic works. They emphasize the play’s psychological aspects when explaining mysteries such as why the tormented Hamlet delays in taking action against his father’s killer. Many experts conclude that Hamlet’s excessive thinking prevents him from immediately avenging his father death and is ultimately his downfall. Although recognized as a valid analysis, this production makes clear that it only skims the surface of Hamlet’s complexities.
This “Hamlet,” directed by Shakespeare Theatre Artistic Director Michael Kahn, takes audiences inside the workings of a troubled mind. Shakespeare has already done the hard work of tossing aside the mechanics of realism by scaling his characters down to nothing more than naked emotions. Kahn’s version allows us to experience this rawness without compromise. As a result, an audience that may hide from the vulnerabilities of emotion in everyday life has the luxury of unmitigated catharses with this production, even if it is while sitting silently in the darkness of an auditorium.
The play’s components use simplicity for full effect, adhering to the doctrine that more is less. The set, costumes, time period, casting and staging are all uncomplicated and isolate the poetic language and horrific chain of events that appear to jump off the stage.
Kahn’s decision to set the play in present-day 2007 makes the production immediate and the characters’ flaws easier to identify with—and that much more difficult to ignore. Instead of Elizabethan youth swallowed in elaborate period garb, he gives Hamlet and his love interest, Ophelia, modern and preppy costuming. Hamlet, back from school, sports casual, chic black-and-white outfits. In GQ style, he constantly tosses his shoulder-length blond hair back from his face in angst. Ophelia, meanwhile, a proper and innocent student in a Catholic school uniform, bounces through her young life listening to music in her Walkman.
With his boyish good looks, Jeffrey Carlson—in the title role—is convincing as a budding man in the throes of extended adolescence who searches for life’s meaning. It’s apropos for him to dramatically slump on his parents’ couch, play with his hair, bite his nails, and pound the floor in temper tantrums.
Ophelia—often cast as a frail young woman—is more vulnerable as a young adolescent who hasn’t yet shed her baby fat. Portrayed with effective understatement by Michelle Beck, Ophelia tries to maintain her sanity when she learns of her father’s death by singing along to tunes from her headset—a heartbreaking sight. Ultimately, the naivety that accompanies her innocence makes her demise all the more painful to witness.
The production makes Hamlet’s mother, Gertrude—an aging trophy wife perpetually clad in ridiculous high heels and flamboyant colors—seem outgrown. In one of the play’s few comical moments, she mixes up the names of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.
Claudius, her new husband and Hamlet’s uncle, is a classically debonair, shallow bachelor trying to stave off the ugly truth of impending old age. Although caricatures, the two characters ring true and are a bit too familiar for comfort.
Even the scenery and staging choices eliminate peripheries to quickly embrace Shakespeare’s message. Walt Spangler’s set is so sparse—a sofa here, a light fixture there, a few eerily hung tree branches—that it is difficult not to give your full attention to the poetic and haunting language taking place on stage.
And Kahn’s decision to constantly place Hamlet in the center of that stage—casually lounging between a pair of school pals on his parents’ sofa, confiding to the audience—serves as a spotlight that repeatedly forces us to experience Hamlet’s reality as our own.
Despite the performance’s length (3 hours and 15 minutes) and the plot’s well-worn familiarity, this production has no problem holding attention and effecting gasps of surprise at pivotal turns that are well anticipated.
In the end, Hamlet ultimately fails to right the wrongs and can no longer bear to live with his corrupted reality. We the audience, however, have no choice but to embrace this reality, which has been so deftly captured here by the Shakespeare Theatre.
Hamlet through July 29 Shakespeare Theatre 450 7th St., NW Tickets are to .25. For more information, please call (202) 547-1122 or visit www.shakespearetheatre.org.
About the Author
Lisa Troshinsky is the theater reviewer for The Washington Diplomat.