BWW Review: HAMLET Amps Up the Antic Disposition at Pittsburgh Public
When I was a college freshman, my theatre history teacher asked the class a loaded question: What is Hamlet about? Boil it down to the most essential theme at its heart, what is this most lauded of plays about? He opened up debate with the class, and then shut it down. "Hamlet," he said, "is about succession of power, and the chaos that ensues politically when the man who should rightfully be king is not king." I disagreed, thinking that Hamlet was about the question of predestination. Ten years later, I'm convinced both of us were wrong, and that Hamlet isn't inherently about anything. It's about what you make it be about.
A mid-to-late career tragedy by British working-class playwright Will Shakespeare, Hamlet (often considered a darker, longer and considerably whiter reimagining of Julie Taymor's The Lion King) tells the familiar story of a melancholy Danish prince, Hamlet (Matthew Amendt)- technically Hamlet II. The prince returns home for his late father's funeral to discover that his uncle Claudius (David Whalen) has married his mother Gertrude (Caris Vujcec) and become king of Denmark. Spurred on by his father's ghost (Darren Eliker), Hamlet begins to investigate his suspicion that Claudius killed Hamlet I to take the throne and the queen for himself. To put it lightly, hijinks ensue. As directed by Ted Pappas, Hamlet defies any easy genre classification: it's much too funny to be a tragedy, but it feels wrong to call it a comedy. This Hamlet feels closer to one of Shakespeare's acidic problem plays than his frequently melancholic tragedies; there's precious little pathos here.
At its heart, Hamlet is a play of contradictions. Hamlet is a young, fit man, except when he's fat and close to middle age (in several lines cut by all but the most obsessively completionist productions). Hamlet is faking his madness, except when he's not. He loves Ophelia, except when he doesn't. Claudius is a calculating melodramatic villain, except when he's the most level-headed and mature character in the show. Polonius is foolish, except when he's wise. Hamlet is a tragic hero brought down by fate, except when he's a loose-cannon vigilante of an antihero. The beauty of Shakespeare's script is that he lets you have it both ways, leaving it to the actors and directors to choose their own adventure within the boundaries of the text. As such, it's as difficult to describe Hamlet as it is to describe Hamlet.
When Matthew Amendt is our Hamlet, the issue becomes muddier and murkier still. This Hamlet is less brooding and melancholy than sardonic and full of unfocused energy, a grim live wire of a person waiting to erupt. I've never seen a Hamlet as clearly an antihero as Amendt's; he dispenses almost immediately with the doleful woes and "melancholy Dane" stereotypes of the character, embracing the darker and more chaotic side of the prince instead. There's a distinct nihilistic streak running through his character arc, and nowhere is it more obvious than the "Alas, poor Yorick" moment near the end of the show. For the uninitiated, Hamlet eventually comes across the skull of the late court jester Yorick and muses on his happy memories of the dead man and the inevitability of death. For most actors, in most productions, this is not a funny moment. But here, it's a darkly comic turn, fitting Hamlet's "anyone can die" swathe of destruction that weaves through the second half of the play.
David Whalen's Claudius is the perfect foil for this particular Hamlet, in this particular Hamlet. Kindly, even-tempered and emotionally mature, the man we see is inwardly conflicted and plagued by his guilty conscience, but outwardly a benevolent and practical politician and family man. If Hamlet II takes after his late father, and Darren Eliker's slow-burn performance as the brooding ghost suggests that he does, perhaps Claudius was right to take matters into his own hands and get the throne out of their hands. One can only imagine what Hamlet would be like as a king...
Given that we're talking about a play so famous it's almost a cliché, I feel no guilt dropping a few spoilers here: Hamlet kills, or involuntarily dooms, lots of people. Some of them deserve it, and some of them don't, but this rogue's gallery of figures is practically a who's who of Pittsburgh character actors. Allen Snyder and Luke Ryan Halferty, as Hamlet's venial friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern respectively, make strong impressions despite having the most generic roles in the theatrical canon. Like Hamlet and Claudius, their characterizations are ambiguous and conflicted, neither the innocent stooges nor money-grubbing backstabbers they are often portrayed as. ("Conflicted" is the watchword for this production.) Speaking of backstabbing, Matt Sullivan's turn as prime minister Polonius sidesteps many of the "old, fat windbag" stereotypes of the character. His Polonius may be a little too fond of his own voice, but he's no fool or pantaloon. In keeping with the overall-positive depiction of Claudius's governance and cabinet, Pappas directs Polonius s that his tendency to ramble feels more like a bore than a buffoon. (For instance, the moment when Polonius rambles about the varied specialties of the traveling players is staged less as a joke on Polonius's tendency to gab, than as a joke about the company's inflated belief in itself.)
And now is the time we talk about Ophelia. Played aptly by Jenny Leona, the character is an afterthought until her famous mad scene, but that's on Shakespeare, not on Pappas or Leona. Ophelia is a notably passive character in terms of plot import, though Leona imbues her with a pleasantly lively presence through the first half of the play. By the time she appears in Act 2, incoherent and shattered, all that has changed. With much of the character's non sequitur rambling mercifully trimmed, what we get is an Ophelia grasping at straws, trying to process what she has been through at the hands of her "antic" ex-boyfriend.
Antic though he may be, much of this production hinges on one of the essential Hamlet debates: is Hamlet faking his madness, while remaining sane and calculating, or has he lost his grip on things? Pappas seems to imply a third option: Hamlet is certainly no giggling lunatic like the PTSD-spiraling Ophelia, but from the time we see him, he is decidedly, undeniably, mentally ill. This Hamlet feels different, viewing it in 2018: only when Amendt's prince let loose on Ophelia with an extended screed about the ways of women did it crystallize for me. Indulge me for a moment as I reproduce his line in question.
"I have heard of your paintings too, well enough. God has given you one face and you make yourselves another. You jig and amble, and you lisp, you nickname God's creatures and make your wantonness your ignorance. Go to, I'll no more on 't. It hath made me mad. I say, we will have no more marriages. Those that are married already, all but one, shall live. The rest shall keep as they are." What might once have read as lighthearted jokery at the expense of the fairer sex now sounds eerily like the misogynist ranting of a red-piller on the Internet, the kind that we now associate with school shootings and toxic "involuntary celibacy" theories of social behavior.
This undercurrent of present-day social and sexual anxiety is countered by the scenic design of James Noone and costumes by Gabriel Berry, which set the show in the Edwardian-era finery of prewar Scandinavia. (Thanks to the film Frozen, audiences will likely associate these looks with northern Europe in a way they didn't before.) Shakespeare set his tale in medieval Denmark, but wrote it current to his own standards and culture. Today, the play is staged in fashions one hundred years old, but it still feels current. That's part of the mystery of Hamlet- it is what you decide it is.