BWW Reviews: HAMLET Kills for Kentucky Shakespeare
The best productions of classic plays present them as if they are world premieres. They reveal new details, shine new light upon dramas whose lines you could recite like the names of your children.
"Hamlet," the finale of Kentucky Shakespeare's trio of summer stagings in Central Park, is exactly this sort of production.
In the director's chair, Kentucky Shakespeare Producing Artistic Director Matt Wallace has taken a story that most everyone knows in some form, a text that comes close to the Bible in circulation and popular knowledge, and trimmed it down to its absolutely essential elements. The result is a high-tension thriller that utterly engrosses from the moment a terrified castle guard shouts "Who's there?"
In its full form, "The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark" can approach four hours in length. Wallace has excised full subplots and great swaths of dialogue and rumination - particularly on the part of its protagonist, the wordiest character in stage history - to create a stage drama of suspicion, paranoia and unrest that is intensely gripping and sacrifices nothing in its brevity.
More than that, Wallace and his cast go to great lengths to plumb the truth of the characters. Clichés are staunchly avoided. Never before have I seen a Polonius who actually cares about both his children, or an Ophelia who is not hanging by a psychological thread, but simply a young girl on the receiving end of a rude introduction to the ways of the world. Throughout the masterfully paced first act, every single word, action and the intent behind them is both crystal clear and a stakes-heightening reaction to exactly what has come before it.
Act Two is where Hamlet's trap for his uncle Claudius is sprung, and the spring propels the action swiftly toward a well-realized conclusion. The action loses some of the dimension and intricacy of the mind games played throughout act one, but the desperate battle of wills and maneuvering on the part of both royals keeps the drama taut.
Jonathan Patrick O'Brien delivers a powerhouse performance as Hamlet. He confidently finds every conceivable touchdown point on the gloomy Dane's whirlwind emotional journey and probes some of Shakespeare's most quotable lines - "the time is out of joint," for example, and of course, the infamous "To be or not to be" soliloquy - for their most essential and intense meanings.
Gregory Maupin delivers a brilliant Polonius. Far from being a senile windbag as the character is often played, Maupin makes him a wonkish know-it-all who has probably been running the kingdom for years while the elder Hamlet was out waging wars. His cleverness proves to be his undoing - and I loved that both we, the audience, and Hamlet bore witness to his suffering just before his death. Wallace made this and other choices, such as Laertes carrying Ophelia's wrapped body to her grave instead of using pall bearers and a coffin, that drive home the visceral brutality of these characters' actions.
Jon Huffman plays Claudius as a benevolent and benign ascendant to the throne, aiming to ease into his ill-gotten position. A private soliloquy reveals him to be more than aware of the severity of his crimes, and more than willing to do whatever it takes to put suspicions about him to rest.
Wallace also employs incredibly clever staging to achieve the supernatural effects required in revealing the ghost of Hamlet's father, especially before the Central Park sun has completely set. Dathan Hooper does an impressive job acting from underneath a full suit of armor to convey the torment of the deposed king's state.
Kudos also to fight choreographer Barrett Cooper, whose work has been a consistent highlight throughout Kentucky Shakespeare's summer season. Hamlet's final duel with the vengeful Laertes displays Cooper's realistic approach to stage fighting - no acting, and do what you'd do in a real fight: don't get hit! - and Cooper makes clever use of the capped foils to drive home Laertes' treachery. His undoing is cringe-inducing.
It was reported that on the final night of the production's first weekend, as Hamlet uttered his final line, rain began to fall. That the world itself would react on cue is a perfect metaphor for the kind of magic Wallace and his repertory company have consistently captured on stage this summer.
"Hamlet" runs through Sunday before going into repertory with "A Midsummer Night's Dream" and "Henry V" through July 27, with a different play running each night. July 26 will also be a "marathon night" in which the cast will perform all three shows. Don't miss these.