Director Jeff Hinkle and the City Theatre cast led by Aaron Black as Hamlet give us a gripping up-tempo version of the famous events in Elsinore. Scarcely more than two and a half hours in playing time elapses between the first challenge on the battlements and Hamlet's dying gasp.
This Hamlet fits well within the max bounds for today's young movie-going public and gives them the bonus of a break in the middle for snacks and bathroom. The nearly full house on opening night offered the encouraging prospect of a well-attended four-week run to open City's fourth season.
And it's a good ride, with some surprises along the way.
Aaron Black offers a two-speed Hamlet. From the first, in soliloquy or speaking to us directly in his monologues, Black establishes the prince's intelligence. His deft timing and effective pauses show Hamlet's mind at work and establish a bond with the audience.
That affinity, however, does not last. In company with any but Horatio or the Player King, Black speeds up, provokes and antagonizes. His diction is precise but as his lines move toward rant, he seems to be less the master of his own thoughts; rather, they burst forth in hectoring images.
Though in appearance and demeanor he's somewhere close to 30 years of age, this Hamlet busts the rest of the world with the selfish hatefulness of an adolescent. His pleasure in aggression paints him with more Hotspur than Hamlet.
Almost all cast members are of similar age. That's not unusual in Austin theatre. We accept it as part of our willing suspension of disbelief. Hamlet and Claudius look as if they could be classmates. Tim Brown as Claudius is a big worried puppy, ill at ease in his new kingly functions and touchingly dependent upon his queen. The fine actress Christy Smith as Gertrude, dignified and confident, dotes on both her boys, rousing Hamlet to Oedipal-like fury.
Director Hinkle makes a striking and successful decision in casting Jeannie Harris as Polonius, king's counselor and parent to Laertes (Collin Bjork) and Ophelia (Shannon Davis). Slim and focused, Harris makes this Polonius both a mother, tweaking Laertes' nose as he kneels to petition Claudius for permission to leave the court, and a razor-keen counselor, almost a regent for the floundering Claudius.
In Harris' mouth, the "few precepts" admonished to Laertes are not woolly-minded expostulations. They are motherly teasing up until the slight break of emotion in the final few lines, "This above all: to thine own self be true,/ And it must follow, as the night the day,/ Thou canst not then be false to any man." Her subsequent grilling of Ophelia ("What is't, Ophelia, he hath said to you?") has new resonance. A discussion of the prince's tenders of love becomes a mother-daughter lesson from a female powerbroker; a realist who has survived intrigues and has given little away.
Philology suggests that Harris could properly have been new baptized, "Polonia," but farewell it; I will use no art.
The most regal presence on stage is John McNeill as the Player King, both in his speech for Hecuba and in The Mousetrap. McNeill's assurance in the player's make-believe contrasts with Claudius's apprehension and with Hamlet's pushy pursuit of revenge.
The setting is Denmark in 1935, for no particular reason other than perhaps to explain the garage sale furniture used in the palace. Action moves across and around a couple of generic platforms in City's small space. Costumes are generally undistinguished. In some cases they are strange: for example, tuxedos are fine for court revels but are seriously out of place at a funeral. The costume choices for Harris as the female Polonius are gratifying exceptions. Harris dresses with power and taste, and the crisp cut of this counselor's dress is considerably more military than garments worn by the guards, by Hamlet's ghost or by Fortinbras.
Sharp action and strong acting predominate over other more modest production values. Shannon Davis captures Ophelia's o'ermastered disappointment and then the fury of her madness. Collin Bjork as the returning Laertes is hot as flame and direct as a rapier.
MacArthur Moore menaces as the ghost of the murdered Hamlet Sr. and uses a similarly distant persona in the final scene when taking charge as Fortinbras. I eagerly anticipated his portrayal of the Gravedigger, remembering his electrifying performance last year as mad Uncle Gabe in August Wilson's Fences, but the opening of the funeral scene unfortunately falls flat. Moore is posted in the waist-deep grave at the back of the platforms and he has to carry the opening of the scene solo. It's awkward, though possible, to justify an extended two-voiced dialogue with oneself, however, the audience may become bewildered when the actor breaks character with impromptu remarks and seeks to enlist them in that dialogue. Such is the case.
Moore might have managed it with force of character if he'd been positioned much closer to us. When he pushes us for the answer to his quibble, "Who builds stronger than a mason, a shipwright, or a carpenter?" I tried to remember the replies of the second clown ("Marry, now I can tell... Mass, I cannot tell"). I wished for a crewmember or someone, somewhere behind us to call out those perplexing replies. Hamlet and Horatio arrive promptly, however, and saved us from further embarrassment.
City Theatre's Hamlet carries its public along with its boisterous flow. Aaron Black is energetic and assertive if not always likeable. Destiny arrives at a gallop, and the corpse-strewn stage in the final scene reminds us that a fury without reflection is more likely to miscarry than to succeed.
Hamlet runs October 22 – November 15 at The City Theatre Austin, 3823 Airport Blvd., Ste. D, Austin, TX 78722. Information can be found at http://www.citytheatreaustin.org/.