As a prelude to their summer production, the Delaware Shakespeare Festival spent April and May touring classrooms, visiting retirement homes, holding essay contests, conducting interviews, collecting insights via social media, and even holding a Town Hall meeting as part of the "I Am Hamlet" Project: their quest to capture what Hamlet means to the community, the modern reflection of the diverse audience that Shakespeare once wrote for. Their own character-focused production chases that broad appeal, highlighting the relatable emotions within an extraordinary plot.
The most notable feature of the production is the undercurrent of anger that runs through many of the actors' performances, an obvious reaction to the personal and public disruptions Denmark keeps encountering. Claudius (Carl Granieri) seems content with his rule and his family until Hamlet uncovers his treachery, whereupon he retaliates with extreme prejudice; the Ghost (Michael Gamache) wanders aimlessly until Hamlet names him and gives him a voice, which he immediately uses to rail against his fate. But Griffin Stanton-Ameisen's energetic (if line-fumbling) Hamlet is the clearest example of this: his madness is all an act, one that imperfectly covers his ire. He is driven first by frustration and discontent, then a growing sense of rage when his uncle's perfidy is revealed. But his interactions with Ophelia (Clare Mahoney) reveal a tenderness that, while sacrificed to uphold his role of madman, nevertheless suggests his cynicism and belligerence are a result of circumstance rather than temperament.
In contrast to Hamlet, who starts the play in a state of vexation, Mahoney portrays Ophelia as a sheltered yet lively girl whose trust in her loved ones leads to her downfall. Polonius' belief that Hamlet's intentions may not be honorable clearly wounds her, but she obeys his commands to push Hamlet away; she is desperately confused by Hamlet's 'antic disposition' but perseveres in trying to soothe him even when she is terrified. Her madness is the genuine reflection of Hamlet's pretence; she acquires the same energy and rage as she runs amok, going so far as to violently hurl her flowers at Gertrude and Claudius, the authority figures who have let her down.
Oona Curley's abstract set perfectly captures Denmark's unrest. An Escher-like irregular archway looms over the levels of tilted asymmetric polygons that comprise the stage. The midnight blue archway is set with random slashes of translucent white, which allow light effects to punctuate the supernatural occurrences (though not always as in-sync with the action as one would hope). Christiaan Clark's score supports the moody atmosphere, Paul Gianakon's performance on cello alternating between discordant and mournful.
Amanda Wolff's costume design seems more a reflection of what Denmark used to be, an orderly (though not uncreative) place in an ahistoric past. The men wear colorful doublet-like vests over shirtsleeves and long pants, with the guards in matching navy uniforms and black berets. The women wear long gowns, Ophelia's (white) and Gertrude's (pink) sporting wide sleeves and leather belts. The costuming is eye-catching but not distracting, and there are several smart details: the Ghost wears almost mummy-like ragged white clothes and a headdress beneath his armor and crown; Gertrude's orange-lined magenta stole matches Claudius' shirt; Hamlet's schoolmates Rosencrantz and Guildenstern wear the same style vest as he does, though in red and blue instead of inky black.
If there is one flaw with the production, it is that it lacks the energy its undercurrent of anger would suggest. It seems to be a problem of contrast: the atmosphere is not stifling enough to make Hamlet's restlessness stand out, but neither is there a foil to set off his internal and external conflicts. Intriguing character interpretations are introduced and then left to fizzle – Gertrude (Caroline Crocker), for example, apparently believes enough of Hamlet's accusations to start mistrusting and shying away from Claudius, but director David Stradley does not seem to have a clear payoff in mind for her final scenes. Conversely, the distinctly ominous appearance of Fortinbras (Stephen Keebler) seems more like a last-minute plot twist than a foreshadowed doom. Stradley's Denmark churns with a simmering discontent that never quite boils over.
Which is not to say that the pacing lags – on the contrary, Stradley keeps the action moving at a steady clip. He also attempts to maintain a balance between the play's dramatic and comedic elements, with the French-accented pomposity of Polonius (James Kassees), the frat-boy enthusiasm of Guildenstern (Johnny Smith), the Player Troupe's amused tolerance of Hamlet's shenanigans, and the black humor of the Gravedigger (Michael Gamache) all providing welcome levity. In contrast to the abstract set and vague setting, Stradley focuses on emotional realism, which nicely offsets the Player Troupe's stylized performances of the Pyrrhus speech and The Mousetrap.
Stradley's vision may not be instantly iconic, but the Delaware Shakespeare Festival offers a well-rounded production to the community crowding Rookwood park. From the intrigued thirteen-year-old who asks, "Dude, what's he smoking?"; to the volunteer who attempts to explain the plot with, "Have you seen The Lion King?"; to the picnic-goers who come prepared with their own prop skull; it is clear that Hamlet continues to catch the attention of new and old audiences, each with their own interests and interpretations.