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Despite Heat Wave, PSF Rolls Out Wicked Cool Hamlet Hot

Jennifer Kramer
Written by Jennifer Kramer     July 24, 2011    
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Despite Heat Wave, PSF Rolls Out Wicked Cool Hamlet

Photos: Lee A. Butz

  • Hamlet
  • by William Shakespeare
  • Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival
  • July 20 - August 7
Acting 5
Costumes 4
Sets 5
Directing 4
Overall 5

It is a tribute to the strength of the production that despite the audience members braving a heat index of 115ºF to view the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival's opening performance of Hamlet, when the first scene begins with a hapless guard huddling against the cold on the frigid battlements of Elsinore, one nevertheless experiences a few sympathetic shivers. In addition to conquering the weather, director Patrick Mulcahy and cast successfully assail the ponderous theatrical history of Shakespeare's most famous play and offer a spirited rendition that is definitely their own.

Justin Adams stars as the title character; perhaps a little slow to start, he nevertheless hits his stride after the first act and produces a sympathetic Hamlet fully capable of carrying the play. His performance is energetic, even hyperactive, but never manic (except for purposes of deception), a dynamic mirrored by the cast and production in general.

Two performances in particular both embody this high-energy dynamic and offer notable interpretations of their roles. The first is Greg Wood as Claudius, who plays the king as a bluff, jovial, and charismatic leader content to leave his sinister past behind – until Hamlet blows his cover. Then he becomes a desperate yet quick-thinking schemer, surprisingly sympathetic as a man able to seize his opportunities at the expense of his conscience. Meanwhile, Mairin Lee's Ophelia is unsurprisingly sympathetic but unexpectedly steely, a passionate young woman capable of rough-housing with her brother and standing up to him when he tries to interfere with her love-life, or giving Hamlet the cold shoulder at the play after their disastrous break-up. Only her father can make her feel shame and doubt her love, and this conflict between authority and self-confidence leads to her eventual breakdown. When her father is killed, she loses her wits but not her force of personality: there is no authority figure now who can stop her from singing, stripping, or tugging her symbolic rolling chair of loss unless she wants to. The strong supporting performances of Ophelia and Claudius draw out their parallels with Hamlet, as well as exploring the complexity of Shakespeare's characters.

Less satisfying is the costume design, though in the technical sense designer Sam Fleming's products are beautiful and well-executed (or not, as required: the Players' worn stage finery was a thoughtful touch). Presumably to acknowledge the cast performing Hamlet in rep with Pride and Prejudice, the design is clearly inspired by a 19th-century aesthetic, though the end result is more a haphazard display of the greatest hits of 1800s fashion than a concentrated effort to evoke a particular time period. The decision to dress everyone in black supports the play's insistence that the Royal Wedding followed the Royal Funeral with unseemly haste; however, this does make it decidedly odd that Gertrude would then urge Hamlet to cast off his nighted color when no one else has, herself included.

In contrast, the set design is simple yet effective: the only permanent installation is the two-story parallelogram of cell-like bars, doubling as sliding doors and a projection screen. Further elaboration for the scenes is provided by set dressing descending from the ceiling (red wall-runners and chandeliers for the throne room, a white arras for Gertrude's closet) and wheeled furniture. The latter is beautifully suited for such a lively cast, immediately establishing Ophelia and Laertes' happy siblinghood as they zoom onto the stage on their couch, whooping with joy; tracking Hamlet's put-on insanity and genuine disruptiveness as he abuses and rearranges everyone's seats and beds at his will; or providing a tragic callback as Ophelia reappears after her breakdown tugging Hamlet's rolling desk chair like a child's wagon and addressing the empty seat in her father's stead. The set is clearly designed to be interacted with, and tracking the characters who do and do not take advantage of this suggests yet another level of complexity to the actors' performances.

Director Patrick Mulcahy does an excellent job balancing not only his cast, but the text as well. In addition to drawing strong performances from his actors, he makes clever use of double-casting to add metacommentary to their roles: Christopher Coucill as the Ghost and the Player King, and Wayne S. Turney as Polonius and the grave-digger, are both particularly of note. Judicious editing allows Mulcahy to tweak the characters' arcs to augment their actors' portrayals while retaining moments that are less plot-relevant but more thematically important to this particular production. Less thematically important material is ejected; the exclusion of Fortinbras' appearance at the end underlines the production's emphasis on the clash of personalities, not political forces.

There are a few missteps, however. While a large projection of the moon is atmospheric, confusion over calculating its phases only aggravates the play's already obscure timeline. Meanwhile, the music (mainly Romantic string quartets) between scene breaks usually strengthens the mood or setting, but occasionally serves only as a distraction: an enraged Laertes storming in on Claudius, gun drawn, does not really need to be heralded by a scare chord. The fight choreography for the majority of the play is intense and realistic, which makes it all the more jarring when Hamlet and Laertes' duel plays out more as competing auditions for an Errol Flynn swashbuckler than a bout between two fencing masters.

Overall, however, the individual touches added by Mulcahy and the cast and the crew only increase their production's value – even the seemingly trivial ones. The mournful look on one player's face, as Hamlet informs the company that their role is to hold up a mirror to nature and she contemplates the gaudy mask in her hand, speaks more eloquently about the nature of theater than whole reams of critical theory. Details like this make the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival's Hamlet a worthy comparison to other productions, as well as a memorable relief from the weather.

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