BWW Review: Shakespeare Theatre's Sleek and Modern HAMLET
There may be something rotten in Denmark, but certainly not at the Shakespeare Theatre where a sleek, modern and astute production of Hamlet just opened. Led by the sensational Michael Urie, Director Michael Kahn has given us a Hamlet for our times. While still a family drama at its core, this Hamlet seems strikingly relevant with its themes of authoritarianism, resistance, and surveillance, just to name a few. The turmoil in the Danish royal household no longer seems remote and distant; it suddenly, and quite frightfully, feels all too real.
At the Danish royal court the young Prince Hamlet (Michael Urie) is bereft with grief over the death of his father the king. Complicating emotions is the ascension of Hamlet's Uncle Claudius (Alan Cox) as King of Denmark, and Claudius's sudden marriage to the young prince's mother Gertrude (Madeleine Potter). After seeing a spirit of his father, Hamlet devises a plan, determined to avenge his father and what he believes was his uncle's suspicious rise to power.
This Hamlet has been set by Kahn in the present day. Elsinore Castle now has a sleek, industrial look thanks to Scenic Designer John Coyne, with swift movements. "Big Brother" is omnipresent and sentries who look like a cross between Nazi Storm Troopers and KGB Agents are everywhere, seeing and hearing everything. Enough cannot be said about Coyne's design and how familiar and cold Elsinore feels.
Many a director has reset Hamlet, and other Shakespeare plays, in the present. It is neither a new technique, nor an original move, and too often is an unsuccessful and cheap attempt to make the play feel relatable or to give it a "fresh look." However, most directors are not Michael Kahn who has an encyclopedic knowledge pertaining to anything related to the Bard. With this production of Hamlet he is subtlety reminding us that while times and methods may change, the ultimate actions and emotions are still the same. Hamlet, at the end of the day is still about a family dynasty, an autocratic ruler, and the methods used to retain power by any means.
Take for example, the constant presence of surveillance. It doesn't matter if it involves a royal counselor ease dropping, or in this production, the king watching electronic video and reading texts. The underlying insecurity of the monarch and his autocratic methods are still obvious. Whether the play is set in the present or centuries ago, Shakespeare's works and themes are timeless and we would be ill-advised to forget this.
As the title character, Urie is thrilling to watch! Quick-witted and sly, when his Hamlet goes "mad" we are constantly left guessing about just how far he'll go. It's the type of performance that keeps you in as much suspense as the royal court in wondering 'what happened to the young prince?' Building on that is Urie's command of the script's inherit humor and Hamlet's constant state of turmoil over his father's fate. It is this inner doubt that fuels Urie as he drives this epic production.
Adding to the unsettled environment of court is Cox's Claudius. Costume Designer Jess Goldstein has done such a great job costuming him that Cox could literally pass as a senator or diplomat in the salons of Georgetown. He has layered his performance with a patriarchal gentleness that makes the finale of Act I truly come as a surprise, causing us to reassess everything we thought we knew. His dynamics with Potter's Gertrude come off as genuine and caring, making his seduction of the royal court all the more believable.
None of the humor in Shakespeare's script is wasted with this production. And while Rosencrantz (Ryan Sphan) & Guildenstern (Kelsey Rainwater) may forever be known as the comic foils in Hamlet, in this production that role falls to the king's ever-faithful aide Polonius (Robert Joy). That's not to say that Sphan and Rainwater are bad as Hamlet's collegiate friends, just that their humor in this production is a bit restrained.
Joy's performance can best be summed up as one long prostration. He may not like Hamlet, but seeing as he's a member of the royal family Polonius would never do anything disrespectful. Still, Joy seems to relish the humor in the role, and the audience doesn't seem to mind.
Where the real effects of Hamlet's plan and antics take their biggest toll are on his mother and Opheia (Oyin Oladejo), Polonius' daughter. Potter is pensive and pragmatic as Gertrude, increasingly so as the evening unfolds. She, like Urie, keep us in a pensive suspense about her true motives. Oladejo is innocent, and captivating. When Hamlet tells her to join a convent, we could see her obeying simply out of her adoration for him.
Broken Chord provides the sound design and original music for the production with eerie effect. As Hamlet's actions are spurred by ghosts of his father Broken Chord's music combined with Yi Zhao's lighting design give the theatre an almost paranormal like effect, enhancing the play's already dark feeling.
The Shakespeare Theatre's productions are perfect for anyone looking to be introduced to the Bard, reacquainted with his works, or reminded why centuries later phrases like "to be or not to be," and "to thine own self be true" are still part of our vernacular. However, in an era when cyber hacking seems to be a constant threat to our privacy, where personal smart phones are being banned from governmental institutions for fear of media leaks, and as long as authoritarian leaders across the globe remain in power, Hamlet remains a cautionary tale about power, politics and family dynamics. Is there any more perfect a show for DC?
Runtime is three hours with one intermission.