Although the Classical Theatre Company official motto promises to “boldly re-envision classical drama,” the five-year-old troupe believes it is important to show respect for a time-honored script like Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
And even though YouTube ads thematically connect the show with the current surveillance scandal involving the United States government and Edward Snowden, the company pays scant attention to that theme, thankfully, during a performance at the Barnevelder Arts Complex. Instead, executive artistic director John Johnston and his resident company take a traditional approach to their sixth season-opener, and it serves them well.
Theatre veterans often speak of the challenges inherent in staging Hamlet. Over the centuries so many of the play’s lines have entered our colloquial speech. Echoes of this drama’s most famous soliloquies have become hardened into proverbs or clichés, making the job of producers that much harder. This iconic tragedy also forces directors and artists to grapple with questions involving Hamlet’s real or feigned madness, how Hamlet truly feels about Ophelia, whether or not Gertrude may have suspected or actually knew that Claudius murdered her first husband, and Claudius’s possible motives for murdering his brother, to name a few. Effectively addressing the work’s ambiguities and complex theatricality requires that directors have a deep understanding of how the play operates.
It was obvious from the company’s most recent performance that Johnston knows his Hamlet. As director, he displays a thoughtful command of the play’s myriad tensions and layers of irony. This understanding becomes most evident through his novel approach to set pieces that often sink under the weight of an audience’s yearning for something original.
In the first act, when Polonius dishes out fatherly advice to Laertes, both he and Ophelia unexpectedly chime in as he utters the well-worn precept, “Neither a borrower nor a lender be,” thereby instantly erasing the hackneyed quality of that scene. When Hamlet ventures inside the church with the intent to murder Claudius as he prays, the scene achieves an other-worldly quality. Playing Claudius, actor Rutherford Cravens appears far below the audience’s eye level, his countenance aglow in an ethereal light enveloped by darkness. The king’s expressions of remorse, uttered while his face is shrouded in light, create an uncommon effect that tempers the viewer’s judgment of his crime. The blocking and lighting in this scene reflect some very clever directing and acting. Such unique staging ensures that the scene becomes more about Claudius’s inner conflict and less about Hamlet’s vacillation and the slow pace of his revenge plot.
Other set pieces in this show prove to be similarly well choreographed and performed, apparently demonstrating the artists’ deep understanding of the comedy and quips that are woven throughout this script. For example, in the role of the first clown, actor Ted Doolittle joins Matthew Keenan (as Hamlet) to perform the famous gravedigger’s scene with precise timing and hilarious punning.
Dublin-born Keenan envisions the troubled prince as an impatient, indignant figure, given to rapid-fire outbursts, especially when he dons his “antic disposition” before Polonius, his parents, and the feckless Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Keenan brings refreshing emotion and nuance to Hamlet’s most familiar speeches, but his scenes with Ophelia and Gertrude tend to sound rushed and thereby less inspiring. The deficiencies of the space’s soundproofing occasionally conspire against the protagonist, especially in the last act. At one point the traffic noise wrecks Hamlet’s reverent musings to Horatio, including Keenan’s quiet assertion that “there is a special providence in the fall of the sparrow.”
Cravens, a seasoned Shakespearean who is adept at playing tragic and comic roles on Houston stages year-round, envisions Claudius as a commanding, pragmatic ruler rather than a grasping, ambitious usurper of his brother’s throne. He imbues the role of the king with subtlety and consistency. In the role of Gertrude, Christianne Mays deftly creates a palpable emotional distance between herself and Claudius. This distance seems barely perceptible until after Ophelia drowns, when the queen silently repels the king’s attempted embrace.
Actor Ralph Ehntholt is well cast as a fatherly and politically astute Polonius. Joanna Hubbard is equally well chosen as a youthful Ophelia, obedient and deferential toward Polonius, while demurring before Hamlet during the play’s first half. Her wide-eyed, tear-soaked countenance during expressions of madness are compelling after Polonius’s murder, even though her excessive pacing back and forth on stage seems a bit distracting. Playing Laertes, Dain Geist is absorbing during the character’s moments of extreme pathos, but during outbursts of rage, his lines are hard to follow.
Jarred Tettey’s portrayal of Horatio is solid, particularly in the culminating scene when Hamlet dies in his arms, uttering some of the most poignant verse ever played for Western audiences. As Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who are recruited by Claudius to spy on the prince, Jeff McMorrough and Amy Garner Buchanan exhibit able understatement and excellent timing.
Hamlet rarely gets performed in Houston, so audiences seem eager to see it when it does get staged. This past season directors here have tackled other Shakespeare plays, such as Henry V (at Main Street Theater) and Macbeth (at Stark Naked Theater). It is clear that the original direction and artistic insights of this Hamlet, though occasionally marred by the deficiencies of Classical Theatre Company’s new performance space, are the work of a mature company that is quite capable of rivaling the best efforts of Houston’s well-established troupes.
The Classical Theatre Company will perform William Shakespeare’s Hamlet Wednesday through Saturday evenings at 8:00 pm. and on Sundays at 2:30 p.m. through September 29, 2013 at the Barnevelder Arts Complex, 2201 Preston St., Houston, Texas.