A Less-Than Compelling HAMLET

Hamlet is a marathon of a play, at least for the actor playing the lead. In the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company’s first-ever production of the Bard’s most famous tragedy, that honor belongs to Patrick Kilpatrick. Kilpatrick has played Romeo, Henry V, and Coriolanus for the CSC—demanding roles, to be sure, yet none so much as the melancholy, brilliant, charismatic, deadly Prince of Denmark, who must be all these things—in quick succession if not simultaneously—while speaking some of the most famous lines ever penned, obsessively punning, pondering the mysteries of life and death, and reserving enough energy to hold his own in a climactic swordfight at play’s end.

It is no wonder, then, that by intermission Kilpatrick seems exhausted. Though he finds a bit of a second wind in Act Two, ultimately I was left with the impression of a runner attempting his first marathon, his focus almost entirely on the technical things he must do to make it through the race: breathing, pacing, and, in theatrical terms, articulating and projecting his voice to fill the huge outdoor stage at the Patapsco Female Institute, where the CSC performs each summer. Such focus does not allow him the flexibility or the freedom to explore the seemingly infinite depths of Hamlet’s ever-changing character.

Though no wonder, it is unquestionably a shame, because the surrounding production, directed by Ian Gallanar, is quite good. For those unfamiliar with the plot, Hamlet, crown prince of Denmark, is visited one night by the ghost of his father, who reveals that his death was no accident, as the official report claims—rather, he was murdered by his brother Claudius, who promptly married the widowed queen and claimed the throne for himself. The upshot for Hamlet, already shaken by his mother’s apparent lack of grief and repulsed by her sexuality, is that he must avenge his father’s murder by killing his uncle. But it is no easy thing to kill a king, even one as repugnant as Claudius, and so Hamlet, notoriously, delays … and delays … and delays, with disastrous consequences not only for himself but for nearly everyone he touches.

As Claudius, Steve Beall carries himself commandingly, his confident façade falling away only in private, as when he prays hopelessly to God to forgive his foul crimes; indeed, Beall’s delivery of the conscience-stricken usurper’s prayer is as good as I have seen. My only gripe is that for much of the play, Beall makes a very impatient villain. It’s understandable to grow restless as Polonius or Rosencrantz and Guildenstern babble inanely, but Beall fidgets and rolls his eyes even to hear welcome tidings from his hand-picked ambassador to Norway, overkill in an otherwise well considered performance. Beall is also creepy as the ghost of Hamlet’s father (an increasingly common bit of double-casting, it seems).

As for Polonius, per usual, the witless counselor steals every scene, including his gruesome death at Hamlet’s hands. David Tabish hides the old man’s scheming behind the too friendly smile of a clown on the verge of senility, and his high-pitched voice is the perfect instrument for long-winded dialogue. Michael Boynton is well cast as Laertes, Polonius’s callow son, whose ridiculously complicated attempt to avenge his own father’s murder creates nearly as much chaos as Hamlet’s.

The revelation in the family, however, is Rebecca Ellis as Ophelia, Polonius’s daughter and the sometime object of Hamlet’s affection. I have long felt that Ophelia, who loses her mind following her father’s death and lover’s exile, is the second most difficult role in the play; most actresses, in my experience, have particular trouble with the mad scenes, which too often end up grotesque rather than pitiful. Ellis has no such trouble— her performance is sensual yet understated, always affecting, and filled with wonderfully specific moments, my favorite being the two “hoots” she gives Claudius immediately prior to one of her more puzzling lines: “They say the owl was a baker’s daughter.” Laertes is never more insightful than when he says, heartbrokenly, of his sister: “Thoughts and afflictions, passions, hell itself / She turns to favor and to prettiness”—an equally apt description of Ellis’s performance.

Jenny Leopold makes a curiously cold Queen Gertrude, shrinking into herself when Ophelia presents her with flowers and appearing generally disinterested in the political life of her kingdom. In perhaps the production’s strangest bit of staging, Leopold delivers her most poignant speech, in which Gertrude describes Ophelia’s death by drowning, directly to the audience, as though dutifully reciting a famous poem in some high school English classroom.

The only other disappointment in the supporting cast is Gregory Burgess, who does little with the plum role of Osric, a foppish courtier whom Hamlet mercilessly satirizes. To be fair, Burgess receives scant help from Gallanar, who has pruned the scene nearly as mercilessly and given Osric few bits of comic business, especially surprising considering the extent to which most other roles have been developed.

James Jager and Michael Burgtorf are amusingly dense as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (though at times they seem to be auditioning for a certain Tom Stoppard play), and Gallanar’s staging of their first meeting with Hamlet is inspired: a mock swordfight that becomes increasingly, unnervingly real. (Kilpatrick is at his best when fencing—the duel between Hamlet and Laertes that ends both their lives is a thrilling climax.) In their brief appearances as the Player King and Queen, Scott Alan Small and Jill Giles make an interesting contrast in styles—Small’s naturalistic delivery versus Giles’s exaggerated speechmaking—and Robby Rose earns unexpected laughs as a clown whom Hamlet implores, in what is typically a throwaway sequence, to “speak no more than is set down for [him].” BJ Gailey is a solid, reassuring presence as Hamlet’s loyal friend and confidante, Horatio.

Scenic designer Heidi L. Castle-Smith has arguably the easiest job of all—the “Haunted Ruins” where the company performs makes a natural Elsinore Castle—and lighting designer David Smith bathes the space in a variety of hues, alternately realistic and spectral. Costume designer Kristina Lambdin dresses the cast in what might be termed “traditional Shakespearean” garb, a decision that meshes well with Gallanar’s respectful approach to the text—there are no modernizations, incongruous music cues, or explicitly drawn parallels to make the play seem more relevant to a modern audience.

Yet whatever else its virtues, a production of Hamlet cannot be truly compelling without a compelling prince at its core. Kilpatrick may well have an exceptional Hamlet within him; for the moment, however, he is still struggling to find him.

Hamlet is playing at Patapsco Female Institute Historic Park, located at 3691 Sarah’s Lane in Ellicott City, on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 8 PM and Sundays at 5 PM, through July 25th. There are two Saturday matinee performances at 3 PM on July 17th and 24th. Tickets are $25-$30 for adults, $23 for seniors, and $15 for students 25 and under. Children 18 and under are admitted free when accompanied by an adult. For more information, visit www.chesapeakeshakespeare.com or call 866-811-4111.  Groups of 10 or more should call 410-313-8874.


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