For their traditional Fall Thriller, the Hedgerow Theatre Company has chosen to produce Hamlet, and takes full advantage of this classic choice even as their production is far from merely "traditional".
The most obvious change is the setting, now moved to the late nineteenth century. As director Dan Hodge notes, "The formality of dress and a rigor of social expectation seems to fit the royal court in this piece, but there is also allowance for romance and thrilling intrigue." This aesthetic is echoed readily in Sarah Mitchell's costume design, where bold colors and rich fabrics denote the wealth of the court of Denmark. Gertrude's formal gown of gold is edged with inches of lace, complementing Claudius' tie and red waistcoat beneath his restrained grey suit; Polonius' suit and tails are an arresting dark green. Younger members of the court like Laertes, Rosencrantz, and Guildenstern wear long jackets and loud patterns, and Ophelia stands out in her velvet dress of dark fuchsia. Even Horatio in the more conservative dress of a gentlewoman scholar wears a striking dark teal gown before donning a soft pink blouse and long gray skirt. Visually interesting on its own, the overall design scheme also makes Hamlet, in his simple black mourning suit, stick out even more.
In contrast, Zoran Kovcic's set design is deliberately minimalist. A platform with two matching half-flights of stairs raises the back half of the stage, and a slender staircase rises up to the balcony on stage right, both painted a chilly slate blue. It's an excellent showcase for elaborate human drama, and indeed, this is the focus of the production.
The action begins with the introduction of Jennifer Summerfield as Horatio, given somewhat unusual though welcome prominence. Summerfield ably demonstrates the mental toll of the turmoil in Denmark even on outsiders: despite her attachment to Hamlet (and its interestingly ambiguous nature), Horatio is frightened and nearly overwhelmed by the Ghost, the harassment of the mad Ophelia, and Claudius' blatant intimidation as events escape his control. In contrast, Annette Kaplafka's Ophelia begins the play as a confident young woman who is then brought low by her own mental tortures. When Polonius claims that love has driven Hamlet mad, Kaplafka clearly shows Ophelia taking this to heart, a reaction that is only reinforced when she witnesses the suicidal mood of his "To be, or not to be," and his subsequent and apparently genuine unhinged raillery against woman's perfidious nature. Assuming that responsibility thus makes her feel culpable for Hamlet's exile and ultimately the death of her father.
Powerful on their own, the production sets off these darker moments with a strong current of levity. Zoran Kovcic's excellent comic timing is fully exploited in his performances as both the Grave Digger and Polonius, while still imbuing the latter with a sense of pathos for his eventual fate. Likewise, Brock D. Vickers and Joel Guerrero respectively humanize the hapless Rosencrantz and Guildenstern: while amusingly toadying, it quickly becomes apparent that they are far out of their league, making Hamlet's retribution at best ambiguously deserved.
However, the best example of this balance of humor and darkness is Jared Reed's Hamlet, who flips from sardonic to disturbed at the slightest provocation. Reed plays Hamlet as a troubled man who is not so much concealing his issues behind a façade as realizing he has little control over the eruption of his own violent potential. Depression overtakes him easily enough and his rage bursts out at the wrong moments, never towards his intended target; humor, no matter how dry or black, is the one emotion over which he retains mastery.
Hodge shows no compunction at trimming the text; in this production, one must rely on the actors and atmosphere to determine that something's rotten in the state of Denmark. The streamlined script works well, and even allows for some additional dialogue by William Shakespeare: Horatio, for example, scolds Hamlet with one of Friar Laurence's from Romeo and Juliet after Hamlet's outburst at Ophelia's funeral, lending her a more appropriate narrative weight now that she opens and closes the play. Cuts to the cast also yield some interesting results, as Hamlet himself plays Lucianus in The Mousetrap, making obvious his hostility to Claudius (and also somewhat excusing his horrific theater etiquette during the production). Hodge also adds layers of complexity to the intrigue as characters repeatedly overhear information of which they are normally unaware. Ophelia witnesses the depths of Hamlet's despair in his most famous soliloquy; Gertrude observes Claudius' suspicious determination to send Hamlet away; Horatio catches wind of Claudius and Laertes' sinister designs. One does wish there was slightly more follow through on the role of the Ghost (John Lopes), whose startling resemblance to his brother Claudius (also John Lopes) and supernaturally violent treatment of Hamlet raises a great many questions that the production chooses not to explore.
However, there is more than enough horror arising from the mortal world as relationships fray and deeds become increasingly dire. Hodge notes, "I found that this is true of every character: they each share a humanity that has great potential to arrest our attention even today." By mining the conventional staging of the play, Hodge and the Hedgerow Theatre's excellent production of Hamlet creates a human drama both familiar and surprising.