Just what is Hamlet’s problem, anyway?
That’s the question raised in Buffalo, NY, by Shakespeare in Delaware Park’s stylish production of Hamlet. Sure, his father died. And his mother got remarried – to his uncle! -- all too quickly.
St. Louis actor Shaun Sheley returns to his native Western New York to take on the title role of the play, portraying the prince as maddeningly changeable, perhaps even bipolar. But besides grief, the underlying reasons for Hamlet’s continuing indecision and misery never quite emerge in this production, directed by Saul Elkin, SDP’s founder and artistic director.
The current production, done in beautiful Elizabethan period dress against an elegantly stark black set, is actually Elkin’s fifth time around the Danish block. Perhaps because previous versions have been more avante garde (there was a rock band on stage in one), this one errs on the side of being too subtle. Things happen, soliloquies fly by, but the why of it all seems to be missing.
Sheley is best in the scenes with his uncle/stepfather Claudius, played by SDP veteran Timothy Newell. They almost seem like cat and mouse, with a deliciously arrogant Claudius holding the upper hand in the first part of the play and Hamlet seizing it later.
On the other hand, there’s little chemistry between Sheley and Rebecca Elkin-Young as Ophelia. During the play-within-a-play scene they bicker like annoyed siblings rather than on-again-off-again lovers. Elkin-Young plays Ophelia as a young woman with a backbone before she descends into her own heart-breaking madness.
Newell’s portrayal of Claudius is multi-layered and delicious. The actor clearly relishes the villain in Claudius, but he and Gertrude (Lisa Vitrano) also revel in their lust for one another. And Newell is masterful in the way he waits a beat in delivering lines to show that he cannot be bothered to tell Rosencrantz and Guildenstern apart or recall the name of Hamlet’s university. After his fratricide is unmasked in Hamlet’s little play, Newell does a great job showing Claudius’s insecurity behind his usual arrogance.
Costume designer Ken Shaw seems to have had fun with the Elizabethan fashions, giving Ophelia a dress in the early part of the play, with sleeves so voluminous that it looks as if she might be able to take flight. Hamlet’s all-black attire suits him as the somber figure. And Gertrude’s various dresses are simply elegant.
The two-story set, designed by Karen Tashjian, is a good match for Hamlet, with the backdrops entirely painted an austere black, interrupted only by two tapestry-like banners painted with a street scene and a giant portrait of a lady. Additional royal bits of color are added and taken away throughout the play in the form of a bright red closet curtain, stools and chairs. The ghost of King Hamlet (Richard Hummert) arrives by stepping out from behind a black scrim painted with a giant, gauzy image of his face. And his appearance is announced by suspenseful music (sound and music by Tom Makar) that invites the hairs on the back of your neck to stand up.
Another suspenseful moment comes during the duel between Laertes (Adam Rath) and Hamlet – just about the best swordplay I have ever seen on stage or screen. The rollicking duel features pointed weapons swooshing ever-so-close to both the swordsmen and the other characters nearby. If only the character of Hamlet could be as pointed and decisive!